Thursday, April 19, 2018
News Roundup

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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

 
Comments
2018 NFL draft countdown: Bucs GM Jason Licht speaks

2018 NFL draft countdown: Bucs GM Jason Licht speaks

We're a week away from the NFL draft in Dallas …Bucs general manager Jason Licht will speak to the media at 11:30 a.m. today at One Buc Place in Tampa. He'll take questions for about 20 minutes and use a lot of words to say nothing.That's the g...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Joe Henderson: Boycott Starbucks? Take a deep breath, folks

Joe Henderson: Boycott Starbucks? Take a deep breath, folks

A couple of weeks ago I received a call from someone doing job-related background checks on a friend of mine. He wanted to meet face-to-face, so we did what many other people do in that situation. We picked a Starbucks that was near to both of us. I’...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Forecast: Clear skies for Tampa Bay lead to a hot, humid and rainy weekend

Forecast: Clear skies for Tampa Bay lead to a hot, humid and rainy weekend

Expect warm weather, clear skies and a slight increase in humidity across Tampa Bay in the next few days, before an incoming cold front raises the chance for rain.Temperatures this morning are in the low 60s with a little bit of damp air. The dry air...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Downtown’s success creates noisy problem for St. Petersburg

Downtown’s success creates noisy problem for St. Petersburg

Times Staff Writer ST. PETERSBURG — Downtown’s rapid growth has not been without tension between its residents and the businesses and events that draw exuberant crowds. The city, which has been attempting to amend its noise ordinance o...
Updated: 2 hours ago
NASA team finds massive Everglades mangrove damage from Irma. Can it recover?

NASA team finds massive Everglades mangrove damage from Irma. Can it recover?

Last spring, a team of NASA scientists looking at South Florida’s dwindling wetlands flew over the Everglades hoping to use aerial 3D imaging and data from the planet’s longest orbiting satellites to plot changes. Then Irma hit.In a matter of hours, ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
The Daystarter: Lightning one win away from advancing; Steve Persall rides off into retirement; talking ‘St. Pete Pier’ funding; meet the Times’ new business columnist

The Daystarter: Lightning one win away from advancing; Steve Persall rides off into retirement; talking ‘St. Pete Pier’ funding; meet the Times’ new business columnist

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.• It’s more of the same with sunny skies and warm temperatures today. It’ll be a bit cooler at the beaches around the mid-70s, but east of Interstate 75 it will be in the mid to upper 8...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Hillsborough targets bilingual teachers’ aides in latest school cuts

Hillsborough targets bilingual teachers’ aides in latest school cuts

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District, with a large and growing population of children from foreign cultures, is reducing the ranks of teachers’ aides who help them master the English language.Next year’s workforce will have about 164 fewer...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Everybody loses in a trade war, Canadian chamber CEO warns Tampa officials

Everybody loses in a trade war, Canadian chamber CEO warns Tampa officials

TAMPA — President Donald Trump has tweeted "trade wars are good, and easy to win."Don’t believe it, the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce told Tampa business and political leaders on Wednesday."We share more with you than with anybody els...
Published: 04/19/18
Trademark makes it official: Call it the St. Pete Pier

Trademark makes it official: Call it the St. Pete Pier

ST. PETERSBURG — Today the City Council is set to approve a $15 million construction contract and additional money for the next phase of the new Pier District expected to open in the fall of 2019.But even as council members get ready to commit hundre...
Published: 04/19/18
Tampa Bay disciples of ‘Wild Wild Country’ guru remember Oregon commune

Tampa Bay disciples of ‘Wild Wild Country’ guru remember Oregon commune

SPRING HILLJoe Lemieux sat on the cream sofa near several relics from another era in his life, out of place in this retiree’s pastel-tinged living room and brought into the morning light specifically for this occasion.There was a beaded necklace hold...
Published: 04/19/18