ST PETERSBURG — Nearly seven months before the vote, the transit debate already has sparked a lot of commotion.
At the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club meeting Thursday on the pros and cons of a proposed countywide transit overhaul that voters will decide on in November, the often-testy discussion was driven less by the issue than by accusations of lying, harassment and corruption.
“In the ranking of misinformation, there are lies, darn lies and statistics, and I would add to that statistics in the hands of No Tax for Tracks,” Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said.
Welch, who chairs the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board, was speaking after No Tax for Tracks leader Barbara Haselden gave a PowerPoint presentation on why her group thinks Greenlight Pinellas’ proposal to swap PSTA’s share of property tax revenue for a new one-cent sales tax to fund transit is bogus.
David McKalip, another anti-rail activist, loudly hissed as Welch spoke.
“How dare you,” he shouted.
Welch criticized McKalip, whom he said disrupted meetings in a similar manner over water fluoridation in 2011.
No Tax for Tracks and other opponents have been fighting the referendum via chain emails and yard signs. Its argument against Greenlight Pinellas’ plan to build light rail and expand the bus system is rooted in government mistrust and doubt as to whether the system would sustain itself.
“We believe that Greenlight Pinellas is a massive tax hike and that it hurts the poor and the middle class because certainly a sales tax is the most regressive form of tax on folks who do not have a lot of money to work with, or who are living on a fixed income,” Haselden said. “It makes all the sense in the world that we should be having money put into building roads.”
Asked by audience member Lois Fries how elderly people no longer able to drive could get around without expanded mass transit, Haselden suggested self-driving cars like the ones Google is working on.
Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, the Florida Department of Transportation’s Inspector General met with state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R- St. Petersburg, Thursday about his concerns that the PSTA’s information campaign regarding the Greenlight referendum amounts to advocacy — which it is not allowed to do as a government agency.
DOT is investigating about $800,000 in PSTA expenditures in connection with the campaign, according to a news release, after Brandes asked for a review earlier this month.
“If we see anything identified as a violation of state law during our review, we will follow up as appropriate,” Inspector General Bob Clift said in an email.
The PSTA has defended the spending as a way to reach voters with information about the proposed transit plan.
Transit advocates say significantly increasing public transportation options will give residents and visitors more ways to get around the county, and that constantly widening traffic-choked roads like U.S. 19 and Ulmerton Road is no longer the answer.
“The reason that two percent of people ride our transit is that transit doesn’t take them where they need to go in a timely manner because it’s underfunded,” Welch said. “We need more revenue to fund the system and bring it up to the same level as every other major metro in the United States. We can either choose to anchor to the past where we are, or we can move forward with a plan that has been thoroughly vetted with elected officials, non-elected officials, neighborhood leaders, business leaders from around this county.”
If approved by voters in November, the $30 million in property taxes that goes toward PSTA would be replaced by $130 million a year from a one-cent sales tax hike, pushing the county tax rate to 8 percent. The money would go toward a 65 percent expansion of bus services, a 24-mile light-rail network linking Clearwater and St. Petersburg, and the development of traffic lanes dedicated for buses.
PSTA spent $400,000 last year developing the plan and seeking consensus from local elected leaders and community groups. It is planning to spend another $400,000 on what it describes as an educational campaign.
For the most part, the campaign has seemed to go over somewhat well, with most polls suggesting a majority of residents favor expanded transit funded by a penny-per-dollar sales tax increase. But results from a St. Pete Polls survey earlier this week suggested the opposite. Only 29 percent of respondents said they favored the plan, and 48 percent said they didn’t.
Joe Farrell, head of the political action committee Friends of Greenlight, said he doesn’t buy it.
“Our numbers are very different than that,” he said. “We trust our research.”
The group, which formed in mid-March, is raising money to campaign in favor of the measure. A fundraising report out Thursday showed the group raised $66,350 in March, $50,000 of which came from Duke Energy.
“I’m very happy with those numbers,” Farrell said, though he expects more robust fundraising going forward.
“We’ve really only had a couple of weeks to get the commitment. We haven’t gotten going on the grassroots fundraising, going forward.”