After Monday night's candidate forum in East Lake, it's clear that Greenlight Pinellas supporters need to get more aggressive in delivering their message in north Pinellas County. No Tax for Tracks, an anti-Greenlight group, dominated the visuals with sign waving and greeters. And just three of the eight Republican County Commission candidates who showed up said publicly that they support the plan, which would greatly expand bus service and create a 24-mile light rail line.
Candidates say north Pinellas residents either don't support the one-penny sales tax increase on the Nov. 4 ballot that would fund the transit improvements, don't think public transit can be successful here, or mistakenly believe Greenlight is about a train for south Pinellas and provides nothing for north county. Offered Peter Nehr, a former state lawmaker now running for County Commission, "They aren't happy about the whole thing."
This comes on the heels of the first defeat of the Greenlight proposal by a city government — the Seminole City Council voted no after hearing a presentation by the No Tax group — and the unexpectedly narrow 3-2 approval of Greenlight by the Tarpon Springs City Commission following a similar presentation. Eleven Pinellas city councils/commissions had voted to support Greenlight before No Tax for Tracks began its presentations.
But there is value in the Greenlight plan for north Pinellas. For example, the property tax that residents now pay to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to operate the county bus system will be eliminated if the sales tax increase is approved by voters. That's worth something in North Pinellas, where property values generally are higher. The additional one-penny sales tax (from 7 cents to 8 cents on the dollar) would raise more revenue to build a better transit system than the bare-bones one we have now, and a portion of that revenue would be paid by tourists. The goal is a 65 percent increase in bus service throughout Pinellas and eventually a light rail line from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater by way of the Gateway area at the east end of Ulmerton Road.
Another potential benefit: There are lots of baby boomers and senior citizens in North Pinellas who one day may have to give up driving because of their age. How will they get to the supermarket, to medical appointments, to church? Pinellas' current spotty, slow bus system is no answer. And young or low-income residents who find owning a car out of their reach would have far more reliable alternatives. Greenlight promises new routes, faster pickups and even a service that will come to your home and deliver you to the nearest bus stop. North Pinellas also would have an express bus route to Tampa International Airport.
There are plenty of other reasons north county voters should support Greenlight, but unless the plan's advocates articulate them well and quickly, they may find it is too late to turn back a rising tide of negativity in north Pinellas.