CLEARWATER — The battle over the future of transit in Pinellas County is officially underway.
Pinellas County commissioners late Tuesday gave final approval to ballot language for a November 2014 referendum on raising the sales tax to build a light-rail system and put more buses on the road. The 6-1 vote followed a testy three-hour debate at a meeting packed with supporters and opponents, a first glimpse of the heated referendum campaign expected next year.
“It’s time for voters to express their opinions and to move this forward,” said Commissioner Karen Seel. “We can’t build our way out of congestion.”
The Nov. 4 vote will be one of the most significant county-wide decisions in decades.
If passed, roughly $30 million in property taxes that fund Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would be replaced by $130 million a year from a one-cent sales tax hike, pushing the county tax to 8 percent. The money would pay for the Greenlight Pinellas plan, which includes a 65-percent expansion of bus services, the development of light rail and traffic lanes dedicated solely for buses. The plan also includes a link to both Tampa and Tampa International Airport, likely through light rail across Howard Frankland Bridge.
Supporters, who included elected officials, leaders of chambers of commerce, environmentalists and activists, outnumbered opponents at the meeting by about 45 to 15.
Many of those in the audience wore Greenlight Pinellas T-shirts. A robust mass transit system would attract employers, reduce congestion and improve air quality and residents’ quality of life, they said. Residents who can’t afford a car would be able to travel farther for work and families who struggle to afford two cars would more transportation options, supporters told the commission.
“This is critically important to the economy,” said Tampa Bay Partnership President Stuart Rogel. “This is critically important to the quality of life for every citizen in Pinellas County.”
Activist Maria Jose Hayes spoke of her 18 months living in transitional housing provided by the Salvation Army in Clearwater, when she relied on buses to take her children to school and daycare and to go to work.
“Those 18 months without a car was hell because the transit system was lacking,” she said. “There are many people who are still struggling, who are in that position I was four years ago. There is a lot to be said about a communtiy when we care about those that have less than us.”
Opponents, many of whom who wore red “STOP” badges, gave a radically different vision of Greenlight Pinellas, fearing that the county will be saddled with an expensive, underused system that will require increasing subsidies from taxpayers.
Campaigning for a group call No Tax for Tracks, they said businesses would be hurt by the sales tax hike. If approved, the county’s sales tax would rise from 7 to 8 percent, the highest in Florida.
“Light rail will result in more than a $1 billion burden that could bankrupt Pinellas County,” said Deb Caso. “The cost to live here will be so high.”
By state law, taxpayer money cannot be spent on swaying voters in a referendum. No Tax for Tracks will likely be countered by a consortium of real estate and development groups and other businesses that will fund a “Yes” campaign.