ST. PETERSBURG — The political action group backing the Greenlight Pinellas transit tax referendum trotted out some heavy hitting supporters Friday.
Among them: the Tampa Bay Rays.
"Obviously we are focused on making it more convenient for our fans to get to and from the games from throughout the entire Tampa Bay region, but more importantly to the Rays, this is an economic development issue," team president Matt Silverman said at news conference at St. Anthony's Hospital. "When companies look to relocate to the Tampa Bay area, transportation is a key factor and currently is something that is working against us."
Representatives from Raymond James Financial, BayCare Health System, St. Petersburg College and the Pinellas Realtor Association also announced support for the Nov. 4 referendum. Voters will decide whether to raise the county's sales tax by a penny, to 8 cents, to expand bus service and build a 24-mile light rail system between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The entire project, including buses and light rail, would cost $2.2 billion to build and $130 million annually to operate.
Asked whether the Greenlight referendum would factor into the Rays decision on where to build a new stadium, Silverman said: "This is the first step toward a regionwide transit system, and that transit system will benefit Rays fans no matter where we are in the region in the future. More importantly, that transit system will help Tampa Bay grow, and as Tampa Bay grows, so will the Rays."
The Rays supported a similar transit referendum that failed in Hillsborough County in 2010.
The Rays have pledged $25,000 to the campaign.
The National Realtor Association has given $245,000, said Brandi Gabbard, chairwoman of the Pinellas association's board. Raymond James and BayCare are also contributing.
The next campaign fundraising report is due May 12.
Opponents of the referendum say the project is too costly and that transit officials should focus on improving bus service.
Greenlight supporters said Friday that more busing alone is not enough for the region to be competitive.
Mercedes Sanchez Van Woerkom, managing director for equity research at Raymond James, travels around the country visiting top business programs at schools such as the University of Chicago and New York University. Many of the nation's most talented students about to enter the job market don't own a car.
"When I'm asked the question, would this pose a problem, it pains me to say yeah, it would in our area," Van Woerkom said.
Steve Mason, chief executive of BayCare, said more transit options would help patients, their families and hospital employees, especially support staffers such as food service workers.
"We are a friend of Greenlight Pinellas because we know it's going to make a big difference and we know it will help change the lives of many people trying to earn a living and focus on a job, or just trying to get to where they need to go to get health care services," Mason said.
Limited options, especially in the evenings when bus service is less frequent, hurt students who are juggling work and classes, said Kevin Gordon, provost for St. Petersburg College's Midtown and downtown campuses. The college's last class ends at 9:40 p.m., Gordon said.
"That creates an issue for someone who uses public transportation and they've got to get home after that class," he said. "Greenlight Pinellas will remedy some of those issues. It will allow students to be engaged, to get the credentials that they need and create a better way of life for themselves."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.