Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

Nickens: Greenlight needs a push

My crystal ball on Greenlight Pinellas is cloudy.

The plan to create a robust transit system with a 1-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 4 ballot has been in the works for years. You can pick at some of the projections and financial assumptions, just as you can with any ambitious public works project that looks decades into the future. But this has been well-vetted, and a transit system with expanded bus service and light rail is critical to the success of Pinellas and the Tampa Bay region.

Yet my sense is that Greenlight supporters have to ramp up their efforts to explain the vision and sell it to voters over the next nine weeks or the referendum could be defeated. That would set Pinellas and the region back decades and make it much more difficult to compete with other urban areas for younger residents and good jobs.

The Greenlight political committee is on track to raise $1 million with some significant corporate contributors. Prominent Republicans and Democrats in elected office support the plan. There is no well-funded opposition, and at least 15 of the county's 24 municipalities have passed resolutions in support of the referendum. That's great. But resolutions and political endorsements are not enough, and the side that raises the most money does not always win. There has to be a stronger effort to explain the Greenlight plan to voters and sell the benefits of investing in the future.

"People have all sorts of misconceptions about it,'' said Largo Mayor Pat Gerard, a Democrat running for a countywide Pinellas County Commission seat who supports the referendum. "In some parts of the county, it is a hugely hard sell.''

One potential trouble spot is North Pinellas, where Republicans who competed in Tuesday's primary for the District 4 commission seat reported widespread voter skepticism. Another is the less affluent Lealman area in mid Pinellas, where voters tend to be independent-minded and skeptical of government.

Here are three points to emphasize:

It's not just about light rail. The 24-mile light rail line that would run from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater is the sexy part that opponents focus on. But better bus service throughout the county will come quicker, with shorter waits between buses, new express buses and other improvements. Over the first 25 years of the project, 52 percent of the total cost will be tied to bus service.

$190,000. Generally, Pinellas residents with a home valued at $190,000 and a $50,000 homestead exemption (taxable value of $140,000) will break even on Greenlight. The additional money they will spend because of the 1-cent sales tax increase will equal their current Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority property tax, which will be repealed. Property owners with more expensive homes should save money. Those with less expensive homes will spend a bit more but should benefit more from more transit options. For example, Greenlight would cost the owner of a median St. Petersburg home with a median income an additional $16.64 a year.

Competition. Charlotte, Denver, Phoenix and now Orlando have more ambitious mass transit systems with a rail component than Tampa Bay — the nation's largest urban area without a viable system.

Greenlight has hit some bumps.

First the political committee had to install new leadership and reorganize so its fundraising would be transparent. Then PSTA gave back federal grant money it misspent on advertising, and it reversed a bad decision to post the names of people making public records requests. Those were errors that played into the hands of Greenlight critics who called for the resignation of PSTA CEO Brad Miller last week. That is not necessary, and PSTA chair and County Commissioner Ken Welch has smartly responded with more oversight by the board. But the timing is not good.

Maybe this alarm call is too pessimistic.

Half of the votes in Tuesday's Republican primary for the District 4 County Commission seat in North Pinellas went to the only two candidates who supported Greenlight. Three of the four candidates in the two commission races on the November ballot support the transit referendum.

The Greenlight political committee also is planning more events, more television ads, more mailings to targeted voters and more canvassing of neighborhoods. A greater presence on social media also would be smart.

There is too much misinformation and too many voters just tuning in to assume Greenlight will coast to victory just because the business establishment and prominent elected officials support it. There has to be a fully coordinated, bipartisan campaign to explain the plan, its importance to the future of Pinellas and Tampa Bay — and the consequences of failing to seize the moment.

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