Both sides of Pinellas County transit referendum say the other is spreading misinformation

04/10/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Ken Welch, psta, Greenlight Pinellas, transit, bus, rail, Pinellas County, Barbara Haselden


No Tax For Tracks spokesperson Barbara Haseldon shows slides she says are evidence that PSTA doesn't have a fiscally sustainable plan.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Both sides of a controversial transit referendum in Pinellas County think the other is spreading misinformation. During a debate at Suncoast Tiger Bay Club Thursday, PSTA board member Ken Welch accused the group No Tax for Tracks of blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Welch was interrupted by longtime opponent David McKalip.

"There are so many misinformation items being put out there. Look, I'm used to this because I was chairman during the fluoride debate, Dr. McAlister. I'm used to you doing this. Remember? You did the same thing during the fluoride debate, you put out bad facts to poison the debate and you disrupted meetings just like your doing now. We're going to have a civil debate but we're not going to allow this to be poisoned by disinformation."

During that exchange, McKalip told Welch to stop being a jerk. No Tax for Tracks spokesperson Barbara Haselden showed slides directly from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s website. Where the disconnect lies though, is in her interpretation of certain numbers. For example, Haselden claims ridership on PSTA buses is far lower than the agency claims, arguing that their more than a million rides figure is derived from people taking one trip on multiple routes. Most people don’t want more buses she claims. But 31-year old New Port Richey resident Christine Mendonca said she does.

"It would be wonderful to hop on a train in Tarpon Springs. I'm 31 years old, I sit on the board of Tampa Bay Waves. I represent 31 entrepreneurs. My question is would you like to see more people like me creating businesses in Pinellas County? So, how do you compete with other cities that have mass transit?"

Haselden instead wants to keep building and improving roads because it’s the most widely used form of transportation. She pointed out that the Greenlight Pinellas Plan voters will decide on in November doesn’t include Tarpon Springs, which is right next to New Port Richey. The one penny sales tax increase would improve and expand bus routes, add bus rapid transit and eventually create a rail system connecting St. Pete, mid-county and Clearwater.

"And I do think that what we are going to find is that when 19 finishes up, which is going to happen relatively quickly, you're going to have a wonderful ride down to this part of the county on a piece of transportation that 98 percent of the people use and that is the road."

But Welch, the PSTA board member representing Greenlight Pinellas argues the reason so many people stick to their cars is because the current public transportation system is lacking. Both spokespeople took turns calling each other out on perceived fallacies in their respective arguments. Welch pointed to the hypocrisy in arguing against a transit tax in favor of continuing to build up roads.

"US19 and Ulmerton road are billion dollar roads that are subsidized. Every time you take a ride on 19 or Ulmerton or any other roads, that's paid for with tax dollars. That's paid for with gas tax dollars. It's about time we give some of those dollars back to our community to improve our transit system. We're the only major metro that has not done that."

But Haselden called the projected $130 million a year revenue stream -- $100 million more than what the current property tax funds -- runaway taxing.

"Salt Lake City, the subsidy per ride is $26.10. So if you have a family of four that want to go downtown to the ballgame it's going to cost over $100 to the taxpayer for that trip downtown and $100 back and they may pay $2 each. This is not a fairy tale, this is the reality."

She used Salt Lake City as an example because Welch used it too – as a measure of success. Welch said rail is working there despite the fact that Salt Lake City is far less densely populated than Pinellas County. He accused Haselden and No Tax For Tracks of being rampant naysayers on lots of things, not just rail. He read excerpts from the group’s website he says are evidence that they just want to privatize the county’s transit system.

"Quote, 'transit is a big business, big salaries, big union, and breeding grounds for transformation into bigger public works like doubling down on light rail.' It goes on to say that 'busses were once run by private enterprise then government got involved and we all know what happens then.' This is from your blog."

But Haselden defended herself saying she couldn’t imagine a county without public transportation. And she made an effort to appeal to the people who currently use the bus system as their only means of transportation, the poor.

"And the middle class because certainly a sales tax is the most regressive form of tax on folks who do not have a lot of money to work with or are living on a fixed income."

Many of those Pinellas County residents living on a fixed income are seniors. One woman in her 70s pointed out that many seniors eventually decide to stop driving for safety reasons and begged the question – what are they supposed to do? Haselden’s response drew a few chuckles: Google Cars.

"We ought to be building our society around innovation. When I was saying 'private' I meant personal transportation. As I said a few minutes ago the innovations are in private, did I say private transportation? Because I apologize, I meant personal transportation when I said the Google car."

A poll released yesterday showed lagging support for the referendum with only 29% of respondents saying they would vote yes on the tax. Greenlight Pinellas Supporters say that just means they need to educate more people about the plan. Another reason Welch says people should support the improvements is that it would eliminate bus centers that attract transient people and consistently struggle with high crime rates.

"The () system like we've seen at Williams Park will be eliminated. It will move to a grid based system with much easier transfers at bus stops."

The referendum will be on the November 10 ballot at the same time voters will choose to either keep or replace Governor Rick Scott.

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