Monday, Dec 22, 2014

Bucs, HSN get aboard Greenlight campaign

BY CHRISTOPHER O’DONNELL
Tribune staff

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— The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and HSN are the latest big names to open their check books and back the Greenlight Pinellas mass-transit plan.

The Buccaneers donated $25,000 to Friends of Greenlight, the political committee leading the privately funded campaign to persuade voters to back the $2.2 billion transit proposal that goes before county voters in November.

HSN, the Pinellas-based home shopping TV network, donated $10,000 and Friends of Greenlight also received a $25,000 from Parsons Brinckerhoff, a Tampa construction and engineering firm.

In all, the group raised almost $70,000 during a 10-day period that ended Thursday, reports filed Friday with the Supervisor of Elections Office show. It has raised more than $722,000 for its advocacy campaign.

“We’ve really got a diverse mix of contributors here,” said Stuart Rogel, a member of the group and president of Tampa Bay Partnership, a non-profit group supporting Greenlight. “We’re seeing that support continuing to grow.”

The donations are a welcome boost for Greenlight supporters after Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority earlier this month announced it would repay $354,000 to the Department of Homeland Security after officials there said the agency misused a grant intended to promote awareness of terrorism threats on public transport.

PSTA used the money to make and air three feel-good commercials that showed happy residents riding buses, walking on beaches, shopping and dining, and which ended with the Greenlight logo and directed viewers to the plan’s website.

That was markedly different from its grant application, which stated the advertisements would “enhance the public’s awareness of their role in keeping the community safe.”

In a follow-up letter sent to PSTA CEO Brad Miller on Aug. 14, DHS officials confirmed that an investigation found that the advertisements violated the terms of the grant and ordered PSTA to cease and desist using the claim in the commercials that they were “paid for in part by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.”

The letter also warns that repayment of the grant does not preclude DHS from pursuing “any applicable civil or criminal remedies.”

The Bucs’ decision to back Greenlight follows a similar move by the Tampa Bay Rays in May. The Greenlight plan includes a light-rail station and more bus service around Tropicana Field and could help the Rays boost its poor attendances.

The direct benefit to the Bucs is less obvious, although the plan does include more bus service across the Bay to Tampa.

Rogel said the Bucs’ support shows that area companies recognize that passage of the Greenlight referendum would create momentum crucial for a similar transit referendum win approval in Hillsborough. That could be put on the ballot in 2016.

“Everyone who understands this issue knows that the region needs good strong transit options and this is the first step in connecting the region,” Rogel said. “Many of their fan-base live in Pinellas and would benefit from having a robust transit system in Pinellas.”

Approval of the Greenlight plan by Pinellas voters would kick-start a $2.2 billion, 10-year project to expand bus service by 65 percent, add bus-rapid transit to key corridors and build a 24-mile light-rail network linking the downtowns of Clearwater and St. Petersburg via the Gateway area.

The plan would be paid for through a one-penny sales tax increase. Annual collections of the extra penny would bring in roughly $130 million per year and would replace a property tax that currently brings about $30 million per year to Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

No Tax for Tracks, a group of activists leading opposition to Greenlight, paint the plan as a boondoggle that will only benefit Realtors and developers. They fear it will saddle the county with an expensive, under-used transit system.

That group reports raising roughly $5,600 in its latest report and has raised more than $46,000 since launching its campaign in February.

No Tax Campaign Manager Barbara Haselden said Friends of Greenlight will struggle to match the $1.5 million raised to back a mass-transit plan in Hillsborough County in 2010. That is proof that companies are unsure Greenlight will pass, she said.

“Just $10,000 from Home Shopping when the train would go right in front of their Headquarters?” she said. “After all, even big corporations don’t want to just throw their stockholders money away on low probability of success.”

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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