This month's crushing defeat of the Greenlight Pinellas plan led many proponents to wonder: Were the critics right? Was the vote a mandate against light rail in Pinellas County?
Survey results released Thursday cast doubt on the theory that the light rail component doomed the plan.
More than 90 percent of the voters who rejected Greenlight Pinellas did so because of the sales tax increase, according to a survey commissioned by the Tampa Bay Partnership. They would not have voted yes even if the light rail had been excluded, said the 400 voters surveyed Nov. 5 and 6.
"It makes it real clear that it was about the tax, and we have to respect in this environment that the voters were not prepared to pay a tax for any reasons to support transit," said Stuart Rogel, president and chief executive officer of the partnership. The group of eight counties focuses on economic development and took a leading role in fundraising for the Yes on Greenlight campaign.
Rogel declined to release the full results of the poll conducted by Frederick Polls of Arlington, Va., but provided more details in an interview. The survey had a margin of error of 4.9 percent. It used home and cellphone numbers, and the demographics of the respondents mirrored the turnout, Rogel said.
Greenlight called for a 1-cent sales tax increase to expand bus service and build a light rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater via the Gateway area. If approved, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority vowed to reduce its existing property tax to zero. The measure needed a simple majority to pass; 62 percent voted no.
Opponents, led by a group called No Tax for Tracks, railed against the plan that would have hiked the sales tax to 8 percent, the highest in the state. The group also cast the result as a mandate against light rail in Pinellas County.
About 55 percent of those who voted no blamed light rail for the decision, Rogel said.
When voters were asked if they would support a half-cent sales tax for only bus improvements, support remained virtually unchanged at 38 percent.
The Yes on Greenlight campaign emphasized that many homeowners would break even or save money as part of the so-called tax swap, but the survey showed many were skeptical. About 78 percent of the no voters had a negative view of the tax swap, a potential sign that voters didn't trust leaders to fulfill that promise, Rogel said.
The survey results are encouraging for rail proponents who are convinced that the route connecting Pinellas' two biggest cities and the employment center at Carillon is a viable part of the plan, but it's a cause for concern for PSTA officials who face potential cuts to service in 2016. The agency has been dipping into budget reserves to maintain the current system.
It's too soon to dismiss the idea of asking voters for a smaller sales tax increase to fund bus improvements, including a rapid bus line to Tampa, said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who is also PSTA board chairman.
In the short term, the PSTA has to focus on boosting efficiency and looking at other sources of revenue, such as increasing its property tax levy to the maximum, a move that would bring in about $200,000 more a year. Rising property values will also help.
"Everything is up for consideration, but the prime objective at this point is keeping the buses on the road," Welch said.
The survey should serve as a warning to Rogel and elected officials, said Barb Haselden, manager of the No Tax for Tracks campaign.
"His own poll shows the people are not interested in this," Haselden said. "I think that we will see a big uprising of the citizens if Pinellas County elected officials continue to spend a lot of money to bring back another referendum."
Hillsborough County is planning its own mass transit referendum for 2016. Perhaps, Rogel said, cities and counties on both sides of Tampa Bay should follow the example of other U.S. cities that failed on their first try: Cobble together funding from other sources for smaller mass transit projects, such as a short rail line and rapid bus routes, to show voters real-world value.
"Get them excited," he said, "and then come back and ask: If you like that, are you willing to pay to build a system?"
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.