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Friday, Jan 18, 2019
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Group hopes to focus Greenlight Pinellas debate on bus improvements

ST. PETERSBURG — The bulk of the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan is a major transformation of the county’s bus network, a 65 percent expansion of bus service that would mean buses running every 15 minutes on the county’s busiest routes.

Yet, most Pinellas voters associate Greenlight only with its more controversial light-rail element and are in the dark about the plan’s bus improvements, according to a new survey of 1,600 residents by the People’s Budget Review, a group that includes local trade unions, activists and neighborhood associations.

Ahead of a November referendum on the plan, the group plans to launch an information campaign targeting existing bus rider and residents in the county’s poorer neighborhoods who the group says will benefit most from Greenlight. Voters will be asked to approve replacing $30 million property tax for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority with $130 million in sales tax from a one penny sales tax hike.

Almost 52 percent of respondents in the online poll conducted over the past few weeks said they have never heard about the bus plan whereas almost 66 percent were familiar or aware of the plan for a 24-mile light-rail link between Clearwater and St. Petersburg, the survey showed.

“We see a widespread lack of awareness on the specifics of the Greenlight plan,” said Aaron Dietrich, an organizer with People’s Budget Review. “Our goal is to put some facts out there and let people decide for themselves without all of the spin and rhetoric.”

The rail link, which will cost about $1.6 billion, has been seized on as a waste of tax dollars by Greenlight opponents No Tax for Tracks, whose yard signs say “Stop Pinellas Light Rail.”

PSTA leaders have allocated $400,000 this year for what they describe as an education campaign to inform voters about the plan. The agency spent a similar amount in 2013 developing the plan and holding outreach events to build consensus among elected and civic leaders.

PSTA’s outreach will be in addition to a privately funded political committee backing the plan. Comprised of chambers of commerce and local businesses, the group is expected to raise about $1 million to promote the Greenlight plan and counter No Tax for Track’s message.

“The whole opposition is focused on light rail,” PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher said. “The majority of the county that will be impacted will be by bus improvements.”

Organizers from People’s Budget Review say they will hold workshops and also go door-to-door to spread word about Greenlight. The group is not endorsing the Greenlight plan, although it may do so closer to the referendum provided members feel it will benefit a majority of Pinellas residents.

“The bulk of this whole outreach will be nuts-and-bolts organizing, hitting the doorsteps, trying to target those folks who rely on public transportation,” Dietrich said.

No Tax for Tracks Campaign Manager Barbara Haselden said she doubts that People’s Budget Review will stay neutral.

“These are the same people when we had hearings for the budget who said we should raise taxes for St. Petersburg,” she said. “It’s another layer of help for Greenlight Pinellas.”

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