Pinellas voters have an opportunity to take the first bold step toward creating a regional transportation system for the 21st century. Greenlight Pinellas is a reasonable investment in the future that would provide better transportation options, create jobs and boost redevelopment. Approving the Nov. 4 referendum also would encourage Hillsborough County to keep pursuing its own transit plan, and it would build support for light rail to span the bay. This is a moment for Pinellas voters to lead Tampa Bay, to build on the county's successes and correct a weakness, to imagine the possibilities a robust public transit system would create for decades to come.
Tampa Bay is the largest metropolitan area without a viable transportation system that includes bus service and some form of rail. Pinellas and the region cannot compete for jobs and younger residents without more ambitious public transit that is reliable, available and affordable. It is an economic issue that affects tourism and employers, and it is a quality of life issue just as much as safe neighborhoods, good schools and vibrant cultural arts. It is Tampa Bay's missing piece.
Greenlight Pinellas is not drawn on the back of a napkin. The plan to dramatically improve bus service and build a 24-mile light rail line from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater has been years in the making. There have been hundreds of meetings and vigorous financial reviews. An alternative analysis of transit options has been completed, the light rail route has been set and the costs have been reasonably calculated. None of those tasks were completed four years ago before Hillsborough County voters rejected a similar transit plan.
Much of the debate about Greenlight has been about the viability of light rail. Yet light rail systems in Charlotte, Minneapolis and Phoenix have exceeded their original ridership projections, and nearly all of the nation's light rail systems are expanding. And Greenlight is not just about light rail. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would expand bus service by 65 percent, add rapid bus routes and run buses far more frequently. Improved bus service would have a far quicker impact than light rail. When light rail started running in 2024, its operating cost would be less than one-third the cost of operating the entire transit system.
The financial underpinnings of the $2.2 billion Greenlight plan appear to be sound. Assumptions about contributions of state and federal money are conservative, and allowances are made for bumps in the economy. The projected cost to build the light rail is in line with other systems. There also is the possibility that a private consortium could build and operate the rail system, which could significantly reduce cost.
The cost to Pinellas taxpayers is reasonable. A new 1-cent sales tax would raise $130 million a year, and one-third of that would be paid by tourists. The existing property tax for transit would be repealed. The bottom line: The owner of a home with the median Pinellas value of $173,000 and a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $14 more a year. And for families and older residents struggling to pay car-related expenses, better transit options would offer opportunities to save money.
Greenlight Pinellas is the first step toward building a regional transit system. If voters approve it, the next step would be a Hillsborough transit referendum in two years and serious talks about connecting the counties by a light rail system that crosses the bay. If voters reject Greenlight, the entire effort toward creating a regional transit system will be stalled.
Over the years, Pinellas voters wisely have approved investing local tax dollars in public schools, juvenile welfare programs and public works projects. This would be another smart investment in the future of the county and all of Tampa Bay. For the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting yes.
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COST OF RAIL
Claim: Light rail costs too much and is a failure in other communities. Greenlight will not qualify for federal loans and grants because of low bus ridership. Cost overruns or an economic downturn will doom it.
Facts: The 24-mile light rail system is expected to cost $65 million to $72 million per mile for a total construction cost of $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion. The average cost per mile is in line with light rail systems in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Portland. Federal loans and grants will be needed, but the rankings for federal grants are based on other factors besides bus ridership, including allowing for rezoning for redevelopment near the rail line. Pinellas has embraced those new land use codes. The financial projections are conservative and provide some allowance for lower than expected property tax collections.
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Claim: The 1 cent sales tax will cost taxpayers too much. Local officials cannot be trusted to rely on the sales tax and repeal the transit property tax.
Facts: The 1 cent sales tax would replace an existing property tax for transit, starting in 2016. Pinellas homeowners would pay an average of $14 more a year, and a third of the revenue raised would be paid by tourists. Homeowners with houses valued at $190,000 and a $50,000 homestead exemption would break even. Those with homes worth more than $190,000 would save money. There are adequate provisions in the pact between the county and PSTA to ensure the property tax disappears, and state lawmakers also will seek legislation to repeal the property tax if Greenlight passes.
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Claim: Nobody wants to ride the bus.
Facts: PSTA ridership has been rising and hit another monthly record in August. It operates about 40 bus and trolley routes now, but waits between buses can be an hour or longer and service is limited on nights and weekends. Greenlight would increase bus service by 65 percent overall and by 80 percent on weekends, add rapid bus service along key routes and run buses every 15 minutes along main routes. There would be more circulator routes in smaller vehicles to take passengers to main bus lines. Regular and more predictable bus schedules should increase ridership, and projections are in line with comparable transit systems.
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Claim: Rail systems do not spur new development.
Facts: The Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization projects more than 90,000 new jobs and more than 123,000 new residents in the next 25 years would result from Greenlight. Projections can be off, but Charlotte, Phoenix and Minneapolis point to significant new development along their light rail lines in recent years. When the Pinellas light rail route and station locations are finalized, private developers could compete to enhance the light rail stations as part of their developments.
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Claim: Bus service can work just fine on existing revenue if the routes are adjusted.
Facts: That is not feasible. PSTA has relied on property tax increases and raiding reserves in recent years to increase ridership. It is near its maximum property tax rate, and the county spends far less per capita on public transit than cities such as Salt Lake City, St. Louis and Milwaukee. If Greenlight fails, PSTA would have to significantly reduce service to make ends meet. Service would be cut by up to 28 percent by 2017, with no service after 9 p.m. and limited service on weekends. Greenlight critics say the existing Penny for Pinellas could be used to improve bus service, but that money cannot be spent for transit operations unless the Legislature changes the law.