Light rail advocates join forces to combat opposition in Pinellas

06/19/12 Janelle Irwin
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Environmentalists and progressive activists are joining forces to let transit officials in Pinellas County know they want expanded mass transit. About 80 of them packed a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) board meeting in Pinellas County Monday to make sure their presence was felt as heavily as rail opponents whose slogan is "no tax for tracks." Organizer of the event, Tim Martin represents the group Awake Pinellas. As multi-modal transportation supporters showed up, Martin made sure everyone wore a sticker with their own slogan, "dump the pump."

“We’re at the point now where we’re seeing opponents really start to dictate the debate. They’ve got a funded campaign and they’ve got yard signs and they’re coming out to these meetings and quite frankly they’re inseminating a presence at the PSTA hearings. We’ve said no longer will they be a majority at these meetings. We feel that once the facts are all out that people will, the majority of people will be in support of expanding mass transit options.”

As more than a dozen people Martin mobilized boarded the 52 route from Grand Central Station on Central Avenue in St. Pete to PSTA headquarters near Ulmerton, he busied himself making sure everyone had a seat on one bus. Pinellas County’s so-called Alternatives Analysis includes plans for light rail that will connect downtown St. Pete, the Gateway area around Carillon and Clearwater. But Martin talked about the failed 2010 referendum in Hillsborough County that would have started similar plans across the bay. He said it failed because the concept wasn’t concrete and people didn’t really know what they were voting for.

“It’s going to be a comprehensive plan that includes probably light rail, includes rapid bus transit, expanded bus services, expanded bike lanes and also road construction projects. That’s a big difference then the way it was marketed in Hillsborough where it was really just focused on light rail. I think that because you’re presenting this as a comprehensive plan with a lot of different options, it makes it much more palatable to the general public.”

But there are concerns that people struggling in a weak economy might not be too keen on footing the bill for a multi-million dollar project, even if it’s a good thing. So instead of proposing a one penny sales tax increase, officials like St. Pete City Council member and PSTA board chair Jeff Danner decided to make it a tax swap that would do away with portions of property taxes that currently help fund public transportation.

“Well the unanimous decision of all 16 members of the PSTA board voted to support that. We found a sponsor and a co-sponsor in Tallahassee. It went through all the committees with a substantial majority of each one passing it, not unanimous, but most of them 75-80% of the three or four committees it went through, passed on the floor of the Senate and the House…”

But Governor Rick Scott vetoed that option. Danner said the board could still put the tax swap on the ballot through things like inter-local agreements.

“That was our opinion was, let the people decide which way they want to pay for transportation in Pinellas County either ad valorem or property tax.”

But not everyone is in favor of the 40-year plan to overhaul the region’s transportation. Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche who is also on the PSTA Board squirmed in his seat during the meeting. Afterward, he said the Alternatives Analysis has only looked at one option.

“What you might have seen as eye rolling was that I didn’t see a lot of talk about anything other than one plan in this long range plan and that was the alternative analysis which is yet to be before this very board for a vote up or down, hasn’t gone forward in the Board of County Commission for a vote up or down and hasn’t been before the citizens for a vote on funding it. I’m always hesitant which is why I spoke at the end of the meeting of we ought to have a plan B.”

Roche said he’s not against light rail, or even high speed rail if it’s necessary. He rejects the “if you build it they will come” argument that light rail will increase economic activity in an area.

“I’ve been very lucky to have been able to look at all the past studies of rail here in Pinellas County all of which come to the same conclusion, it doesn’t make sense in our current state of development.”

According to Brad Miller, CEO of PSTA, ridership on county buses has consistently gone up as the economy’s stagnancy continues. People between 18 and 34 have rode buses 40% more and people in that same age group who earn more than $70,000 a year have rode 100% more. Leslie Granato is one of those statistics. She sold her car a little over a year ago to make ends meet and she’s been riding the bus ever since. For the most part she said she’s made the best of it, but there are sometimes long waits and sweaty walks from bus stops to destinations. And she said she’s seen her fair share of time consuming breakdowns over the past year too.

“I thought either something was wrong with the suspension or he was trying to hit every pot hole possible in the street. Turned out the steering went on the bus. He couldn’t steer the bus at all. So we had to get off and get onto another bus which took us even longer to get to where we’re going.”

And Kathleen Harris is also a regular bus rider. She went along with the other transit supporters to see what was going on because she’d like to see her commute times cut back.

“It’s just too much waiting on a time, so they need to change the time and make it a lot easier so we can get to where we need to go.”

Improving transit, supporters argue, gives residents more options for their daily commutes. But for Caleb Linton, it would make the best of a difficult situation. He was arrested for drug possession and ordered into a long-term treatment program. As part of that he has to ride the bus to and from work even though he has a car and a license. He said he won’t ride the bus when his treatment is through and hasn’t had too many problems. But he does see some holes in the transit authority’s services.

“I’ve missed a couple of buses because – Saturday I was actually late to where I was going because the last bus that shows up on Saturday didn't show up at all. So, there’s things like that I guess you have to expect when you’re riding the bus.”

Phil Compton, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club, said even if many people chose not to hop on a train or a bus to get to their destinations, multi-modal transportation would have a spill over effect on all commuters by reducing traffic congestion.

“The fact that we don’t have a choice except to drive our cars and our trucks pretty much every time we go anywhere, from an environmental standpoint it’s the primary source of our air pollution that makes life tough here for kids with asthma and for seniors with COPD heart disease. We have too many days here, in fact we have the worst air quality in Florida and it’s really from everybody having to drive their cars.”

PSTA CEO Brad Miller hopes to have a final proposal to the County Commission in the spring of 2013 or 2014. If they approve it, a referendum would go on the ballot for voters about 6-months later. Whether that referendum will be a sales tax hike or a tax swap or something else all together is the multi-million dollar question.

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