New campaign asks for yes vote on Pinellas transit referendum

02/07/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Greenlight Pinellas, transit, Pinellas County, psta, Brad Miller, rail


PSTA CEO Brad Miller unveils campaign advocating for a sales tax increase to fund transit improvements.

photo by Janelle Irwin

The campaign for a Pinellas County transit referendum officially launched Friday. The Yes for Greenlight initiative is gathering support for a one penny sales tax increase that would fund massive transit improvements including light rail and bus rapid transit.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is looking forward to a November ballot question asking voters to approve the increased sales tax to replace property taxes that currently fund the agency. Brad Miller is the CEO of PSTA.

“The median house in Palm Harbor is $215,000. they paid PSTA $120 in property tax last year. Their median family income with a family of two, the IRS estimates that their sales tax would be $121.83 – about $1.60 change per year for the average Palm Harbor resident.”

A PSTA victory in November would mean the agency would bring in about $130 million in sales tax revenue instead of the $30 million it currently gets from property taxes. PSTA board chair and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch says the increased revenue would solve concerns that the agency is quickly becoming insolvent as property tax revenue continues to drop in a still fragile housing market.

“Not only can we not maintain the current bus system that we have now, but we certainly can’t expand to what this county deserves in terms of efficient, choice bus service that will not only serve current riders, but attract new riders.”

The Yes for Greenlight campaign unveiled its first video Friday at the Pinellas Professional Realtors Organization office on Ulmerton Road. That group is one of several supporting the penny sales tax. Last night, Dunedin City Council unanimously approved support for the Greenlight Pinellas plan. PSTA CEO Miller says that adds to cities like St. Pete and Largo and dozens of civic groups.

“And that has been replicated all across the county. Our Greenlight meetings brought together nearly 100 civic leaders and business leaders who really dove into these plans right in this room and pretty much grilled me for hours about the details and the financing and things like that. We had strong, strong consensus.”

The planning for these transit improvements goes back to at least 2010 when officials started gathering feedback on what residents and businesses wanted. That led to a series of stakeholder meetings and an Alternatives Analysis. But the community outreach didn’t stop once a referendum was approved. Throughout the summer, members of the Greenlight Pinellas Civic Committee, including north county resident Don Ewing, hosted meetings where they spoke with both supporters and critics of the improved transit plans.

“We found that it wasn’t just transit. 74% of the folks that attended those meanings wanted creating livable communities; they wanted growing our economy by creating and attracting new jobs; they wanted to protect our environment. 46% were interested in investing for future generations and provide them with transit options and 49% wanted to expand transit options.”

People behind the Yes campaign are asking supporters to tell their friends. Chris Steinocher is head of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m a yes because I have two kids, ten and twelve, I want them to live here the rest of their lives. I’m a yes because I’m about economic development and I want our employers to have the jobs they need. I’m a yes because I’m on the Homeless Leadership Board and we have got to get people to the jobs that are available. I am a yes because we care about this community. Why are you a yes? Find out, understand it, go to yes for Greenlight Pinellas, tell us why you’re a yes.”

There’s a campaign headed by people from the local Tea Party opposing the sales tax referendum. No Tax for Tracks supporters have been speaking out against the referendum since before it was even proposed. They argue it’s not a tax swap as supporters claim because it increases revenue. But Steinocher says the decision should be about caring about improving communities.

“Are we putting the rocks in our backpacks for our kids or are we putting wings on their backpacks? What are we doing for our community going forward?”

According to PSTA, staff members have given more than 250 presentations about the proposed transit improvements. If approved by voters, the referendum will pay for rail connecting downtown St. Pete to the Carillon business district and then north to Clearwater. It would also increase bus service, add bus rapid transit and a rail connection to Tampa sometime around 2025 when part of the Howard Frankland Bridge is replaced.

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The light rail will create a ribbon of wealth and prosperity our county and region can leverage into more ribbons on wealth and prosperity. This is a smart plan--vote yes. To the Tea Party 'no tax for tracks' what is your alternative plan? Enough 'just vote no'--create an alternative or say what we have now is good enough.