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Selling transit tax to North Pinellas voters may be challenging

As campaigns for and against a proposed sales tax increase for mass transit in Pinellas County kick into gear, the comparisons to Hillsborough are coming daily.

Opponents call the defeat of Hillsborough's referendum in 2010 a model for their own efforts.

Advocates trumpet the fact that Pinellas has a fixed plan, not the to-be-determined proposal that Hills­borough put before voters. And unlike Hillsborough, Pinellas has the support of most of the county's political and business leaders. "We have reached consensus," Brad Miller, the director of Pinellas' transit agency, recently told a crowd of mass transit advocates.

It's understandable if transit advocates in Pinellas sound a little smug when they look across the bay. But if they look beyond Tampa, to Hillsborough's sprawling suburbs to the east and south, their confidence might begin to fade. Voters in those areas played a pivotal role in the 2010 referendum's defeat, and they share much in common with North Pinellas residents, who describe themselves as a more conservative and car-loving lot than their counterparts in the southern part of the county.

"The north county voters are probably our greatest challenge," said Ronnie Duncan, one of the advocacy campaign's leaders, and a North Pinellas resident himself.

Barely off the ground, Duncan's Yes for Greenlight campaign is the main force advocating for the referendum's passage, and its organizers expect to raise a minimum of $1 million to that end. Winning over North Pinellas, they argue, will require a combination of a more appealing proposal than Hillsborough had and the ability to pinpoint what different neighborhoods' transportation needs are and effectively market the plan to them.

Pinellas' plan differs from Hillsborough's in some key ways. It asks voters to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent, just as Hillsborough's did, but it promises to eliminate the property tax that currently funds the county's transit agency. This exchange would generate an additional $100 million for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority annually and, agency officials say, it would also save some residents money, particularly in north county, where home values are high.

The Greenlight plan's boosters also say it offers much more to North Pinellas residents than Hillsborough's proposal did for its suburbs.

Hillsborough's plan called for three-quarters of the money to go to an expansion of the bus system and a light rail network connecting downtown Tampa with the University of South Florida area and the West Shore District. The remaining quarter would have paid for upgrades to the county's road network, a carrot that transit advocates dangled in front of suburbanites, to little effect.

"In Hillsborough, they were being asked to pay for a tax that they would never see any real advantage from," said Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, who worked on the Hills­borough campaign three years ago. "In Pinellas, we haven't left any part of our community out."

Though plans for a Pinellas light rail route don't show it extending farther north than Clearwater, the Greenlight proposal would increase bus service in North Pinellas. It includes a bus route that would pick up north county residents and take them to Tampa International Airport, a bus rapid transit — or BRT ­­— route on North McMullen Booth Road to ease traffic flow, and a fleet of minibuses that will circulate in north county, picking up passengers at their doorsteps.

Still, for all the talk of building consensus, many North Pinellas residents oppose the plan.

"There's not enough in it for north county," said state Rep. Carl Zimmerman, a Democrat whose District 65 seat covers Pinellas' northern tip, including Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs and Dunedin.

"My opinion would be different if I lived in St. Pete," he said, noting that people in the county's urban areas are more likely to warm to the idea of taking a bus to work, or riding a train from St. Petersburg to the Gateway area. But in north county, these proposals often seem anathema to the lifestyle many have chosen.

Zimmerman's colleagues on the other side of the aisle, state Reps. Larry Ahern and Ed Hooper, who represent districts directly south of his, also oppose the Greenlight plan.

But Don Ewing, president of a group called the Council of North County Neighborhoods, which brings together residents from across the area to discuss local issues, is optimistic about the plan's passage. In all likelihood, he said, most North Pinellas residents don't know the county has a bus system. And if they are aware of it, they don't view it as a viable transportation option. The promise of a bus system worth taking could change minds.

"I've heard a lot of folks say that north county is not going to vote for it and north county is against it and why would they want it," he said. "But once voters hear what the plan is, I think they'll overcome the extra penny."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Selling transit tax to North Pinellas voters may be challenging 02/15/14 [Last modified: Saturday, February 15, 2014 10:03pm]

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