A recent Greenlight Pinellas forum in south St. Petersburg demonstrated why critics of the 30-year transit plan are wrong when they say only wealthy corporations and developers would benefit from the plan. Better mass transit has the potential to improve the lives and economic opportunities of people in all walks of life, but especially those who can't afford a car.
One of the attendees at the Childs Park Recreation Center forum earlier this month was 63-year-old Talmadge Andrews, who told officials the most important part of the Greenlight plan is expanded bus service. Buses need to run later at night, he said, so workers don't have to walk long distances in the dark. "That's much more important than light rail," he said.
Andrews' comment put a realistic point on the debate about Greenlight: Many residents of low-income neighborhoods in St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas don't have cars and must depend on buses to get around. But the current bus system doesn't always take people where they need to go for work, and the hours it operates often don't mesh with job hours, especially for weekend or shift workers. Limited bus service also reduces the geographic area where bus-dependent residents can look for jobs.
The Greenlight Pinellas plan promises a 65 percent increase in bus service, an 80 percent increase in weekend service, and rapid bus routes connecting major employment centers. Those improvements could bring life-changing opportunities within reach for people who can't afford cars but are eager to work or get a better job.
Safety is not regularly mentioned as a reason to support Greenlight, but if the plan would bring buses running more often, later at night and closer to homes, saving people from long walks in the dark, then safer travel is a given. The plan calls for bus and trolley service until 11 p.m. or midnight most nights, giving those who work second shift a reliable and safe way to get home at night. The same would hold true for college students taking late classes.
Bus travel would become more efficient, too. Bus riders who must transfer from one bus or route to another to reach their destination currently travel miles out of their way to a bus hub to make that transfer. Greenlight would switch to a grid system, where transfers would occur at bus stops on the street.
The bus system improvements would start soon after collection of a 1 percent sales tax begins in January 2016, if voters approve the tax in November.
Greenlight critics have focused most of their fire on another plan component: a 24-mile light rail line that would run from downtown St. Petersburg to the Gateway/Carillon employment center and then on to downtown Clearwater. They call light rail a boondoggle and say the only beneficiaries will be developers who will build projects around the 16 rail stations.
But the critics overlook the potential benefits to low-income workers who don't own cars. For example, Pinellas service workers — vital to the tourist industry — could use a combination of bus and rail to get to Clearwater Beach's thriving hotels and restaurants, the south county beaches or bustling downtown St. Petersburg. Crisscrossing the county to get a job or a better job would be decidedly less difficult.
Critics argue that the 1 percent sales tax that would be implemented to pay for Greenlight would hit the poor in the pocketbook. All residents of Pinellas who purchase taxable items would pay the tax. But fully a third of the revenue would be paid by tourists and other Pinellas visitors.
The Greenlight plan has benefits for all Pinellas residents, but it holds out the promise of a better life to residents now tethered to their neighborhoods by a lack of transit options.