ST. PETERSBURG — Another Tampa Bay transportation initiative perished at the hands of voters Tuesday as Pinellas County residents overwhelmingly rejected a one-penny sales tax hike to pay for the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan.
The defeat could result in severe cuts in the county’s bus service over the next few years. It is also a major setback for transit advocates and local leaders who touted the $2.2 million plan for light rail and expanded bus service as the first step toward development of a robust mass transit network across Tampa Bay.
Instead, transit supporters and county officials in Hillsborough now anxiously will be poring over the wreckage of the failed Pinellas campaign, hoping to avoid a repeat fate when a similar plan is expected to be put in front of voters there in 2016.
The margin of the defeat shocked even the stoutest Greenlight supporters. The plan was devised to avoid the mistakes that doomed the 2010 Hillsborough County transit referendum. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials spent more than two years building consensus for the plan. It had the backing of almost every local elected official and was endorsed by more than a dozen of Pinellas’ 24 cities. Local companies including Duke Energy, Jabil, and the region’s three major professional sports franchises poured in more than $1 million in campaign donations to sell the plan to voters.
But it was opponents No Tax for Tracks’ message that resonated with voters. The group warned that having the highest sales tax rate in Florida would hurt business and it questioned the wisdom of building a $1.6 billion train that did not connect directly to Tampa or the county’s beaches.
“Our message of rejecting the highest sales tax in the state was a message people agreed with,” said Barbara Haselden, No Tax campaign manager. “They agree we don’t need a light rail system in Pinellas County.”
County Commissioner Ken Welch, who chairs the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, took a crumb of comfort that the plan was supported by a majority of St. Petersburg voters. But he said it was clear that most Pinellas residents did not want to pay for a $1.6 billion, 24-mile light rail line to link St. Petersburg and Clearwater via the Gateway area. The defeat of similar transit initiatives in Polk and Hernando counties on Tuesday also shows that voters remain skeptical about using sales tax to pay for transit, he said.
“Voters in mid or north county didn’t see enough in the plan to support it,” Welch said. “The voters are sending a message that they are very cautious about how they fund transit.”
That included St. Petersburg resident Ielise Christensen, who voted against the referendum saying that it made no sense to build a light rail link to Clearwater and not to Tampa.
“I would be completely for it if it had some connection with Tampa,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to be going to any main place; what’s the point of using it?”
The Greenlight campaign also was dogged by several missteps that opponents seized upon.
In February, Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Ronnie Duncan stepped down as one of the leaders of the Friends of Greenlight political committee after opponents said his involvement was a conflict of interests and will damage TBARTA’s standing.
This summer, PSTA was required to refund $354,000 to the Department of Homeland Security after officials there said the agency misused a grant intended to raise awareness of terrorist threats to make advertisements that promoted riding the bus and the Greenlight campaign.
PSTA CEO Brad Miller also came under fire for seeming to endorse a move by transit unions to boycott businesses that supported No Tax for Tracks.
Throughout the campaign, PSTA leaders warned that defeat would mean cuts in bus service of up to 30 percent. The agency this year is using reserves to make up a $2.2 million shortfall and the agency’s expenses are estimated to outstrip revenues by $6 million a year by 2019.
According to a 2013 bus study, the agency will have to choose between eliminating rarely used routes or reducing frequency on the most popular ones, neither a choice that PSTA leaders will relish. Welch said agency officials will begin discussions on how to move forward in the next few days.
“Throughout this process folks have talked about the need for better service, but were not receptive to the rail portion of it,” Welch said. “We have to look at ways to build the bus service.”
Despite the defeat, local transit advocates remained steadfast that Tampa Bay cannot continue as the largest metropolitan area without a robust transit network.
Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, said the likely 2016 referendum in Hillsborough may stand a better chance since the county’s sales tax rate is half a penny lower than the rate in Pinellas.
“There’s no other way to go - we don’t have another choice,” said Thurman. “We have to figure out how to explain to people that we can’t continue to widen roads.”