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Monday, Sep 01, 2014

Pinellas mass-transit backers prep for push on sales tax


ST. PETERSBURG — Elected officials and transit advocates are quietly building a coalition of diverse groups to bolster support for the transit expansion plan that will go before voters in November 2014.

St. Petersburg City Council gave unanimous approval to the Greenlight Pinellas plan Thursday, becoming the first of the county’s 24 cities to publicly back the proposed expansion of mass transit in Pinellas County.

Transit leaders say the 30-year plan also has the backing of roughly 24 community and civic groups, including the Sierra Club, the local NAACP and local chambers of commerce, and that they will seek endorsements from the county’s 23 other cities.

“We have an opportunity to really change the way we do transportation in our county,” said Jeff Danner, a city council member who has been one of the forces behind transit reform. “It will give people options other than driving automobiles everywhere they have to go.”

Pinellas County commissioners are likely to approve the final ballot language on Tuesday to kickstart a yearlong campaign to win over voters. If the ballot passes, roughly $30 million in property taxes that fund Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would be replaced by $130 million a year from a 1-cent sales tax hike, pushing the county rate to 8 percent. The money would pay for a 65 percent expansion of bus services and for the development of light rail and traffic lanes solely for buses.

By law, taxpayer money cannot be used to advocate for a referendum result. Instead, the push for a “yes” vote will be led by a consortium of private businesses expected to include real estate and construction companies that would benefit from an expected construction boom centered on new transit hubs. That would include 16 rail stations on a proposed 24-mile light-rail network linking downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Clearwater, estimated to cost $1.6 billion.

St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher said there also is support from large employers such as city hospitals that want transit as an option for late-shift workers. Some bus routes do not operate after 6 p.m.

“We see it as an economic development proposition,” Steinocher said. “It’s not good business if people can’t get to work; it’s not good business if people are stuck in traffic.”

How much money the consortium plans to raise for the campaign is unclear. Hillsborough County business and civic leaders raised $1.5 million for that county’s 2010 transit referendum but failed to persuade voters to pass it.

Steinocher said Pinellas has a better chance to succeed because the transit authority already has begun a grass-roots education campaign that has raised awareness of the Greenlight plan.

“Because of the last two years, we won’t need as much funds,” he said.

The campaign is expected to be handled by Tampa public relations firm Tucker Hall, which has been involved with 11 Florida referendums in the past nine years, including a successful campaign to get voters to pay for infrastructure projects in Sarasota County.

Opposition is likely to be headed by members of No Tax for Tracks. Members argue the county is not growing fast enough to support transit and that residents will still prefer their cars, saddling the county with an expensive, under-used transit system.

“The census shows that 1.6 percent of the population uses transit; there is no population increase projected,” group member Tom Rask said.

He also warned that an 8 percent sales tax would give Pinellas the highest rate in Florida.

The transit advocates are planning to launch their campaign at an event at Abundant life Ministries on Belcher Road on Jan. 23.


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