ST. PETERSBURG — It will be another year before residents of this city are asked to weigh in on a proposed countywide tax increase to pay for mass transit, but the idea already has local support.
By a clear majority, likely voters who participated in a new poll sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and WUSF Public Media said that they would support a 1-cent sales tax increase to build a light rail system and expand bus service across Pinellas County. Of the 809 people surveyed, 56 percent said they favored the proposal, 36 percent were opposed and another 8 percent declined to answer or were unsure. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
"All of our greater cities in the United States all have some sort of mass transit system," said Sima Damijan, 44, a production manager at a contact lens company, who answered the survey conducted from Oct. 17 to 21. "I believe that's what's holding Pinellas County and Hillsborough County back in general from developing into one of these greater metropolitan areas."
Pinellas commissioners are debating the wording of the sales tax referendum they plan to put before voters in November 2014. The measure would add a penny to the county's sales tax, raising an estimated $128 million annually, half of which would pay for expanded bus service. The rest would go to constructing 24 miles of light rail, including 16 stations between Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
Though the 2014 transit referendum will be put to voters countywide, the results in St. Petersburg suggest that selling the plan to city residents will not be difficult. Further north, residents in towns like Palm Harbor and Oldsmar could prove a tougher crowd.
Yet a Times survey conducted last December found the transit expansion plan was fairly popular across Pinellas.
The poll asked voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas the question: "Would you be supportive of spending public or tax money to bring light rail mass transit to parts of the Tampa Bay area?" In Pinellas, where support was higher than across the bay, 60 percent of residents said "yes," while 33 percent answered "no."
In this month's poll, respondents who had traveled widely and used other cities' rail and bus systems were often enthusiastic about a mass transit expansion in Pinellas. Several expressed hope that if the county built a rail network quickly enough, it might boost Rays' attendance and encourage the team to stay in the region.
Louis Williams, 75, a retiree who was born and raised in St. Petersburg, said he goes to Philadelphia and New York several times a year, often using Amtrak and regional transit. "I'm accustomed to the rail service," he said. "I think it alleviates a lot of traffic and accidents."
Paying a higher sales tax for a bus and rail network in Pinellas is like paying the Sunshine Skyway Bridge toll, he said. "It's just something you have to deal with."
In St. Petersburg, voters under 55 were more likely to support the sales tax increase than were respondents 55 and older. Men, 60 percent of whom backed the referendum, were more enthusiastic than women, 53 percent of whom said they would support it.
But the sharpest divide was between respondents who identified with a political party. Only 41 percent of Republicans said they would support the proposed referendum, compared with 66 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents.
"We pay enough taxes and I am not big on spending a lot of money on light rail," said Kay Twit, 70, a retired nurse who moved to St. Petersburg almost 20 years ago from Baltimore. Twit said she could support expanding the bus system.
As in 2010 when Hillsborough put a similar referendum before voters, many poll respondents confused the question about light rail in Pinellas with an earlier proposal to build a high speed railway between Tampa and Orlando. Gov. Rick Scott rejected that plan in 2011.
Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch said he was encouraged.
"We're getting a very good response and feedback to the Greeenlight Pinellas plan and to see that large of a gap between support and opposition, I think shows that message is being received," he said.