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Transit opponents launch campaign in Pinellas

Published Jan. 22, 2014

LARGO — Bathed in red light, her campaign's color, St. Petersburg resident Barbara Haselden fired the opening salvo on Tuesday of what promises to be a months-long fight in Pinellas County over a proposed tax increase for transit.

"We don't have a problem," she told more than 100 people who gathered in a Belcher Road church to take part in the official campaign kickoff for opponents of the transit tax referendum. Pinellas doesn't need light rail, it doesn't need an expanded bus system and residents should reject a proposal to raise the sales tax to pay for both.

The campaign is part of a movement that began several years ago in Hillsborough and has never packed away its files or allowed its talking points to gather dust.

If the name of the campaign, "No Tax for Tracks," sounds familiar, that's because it's the second generation of the Hillsborough-based group that worked to successfully defeat a similar referendum in 2010. There, residents defeated a ballot measure 58 percent to 42 percent that would have raised the sales tax to pay for light rail, expanded bus service and road improvements.

Money concerns

In Pinellas, a loose collection of Tea Party members and anti-tax activists have been monitoring the progress of a similar referendum for the last several years. Led by Haselden, 61, who co-founded a local Tea Party chapter, the group has attended and filmed dozens of meetings, all with an eye toward battling the referendum's advocates in 2014.

Now, with a vote only months away, Haselden and a core group of about two dozen activists are gearing up for what they hope will be a repeat of 2010's outcome.

"This is not something that we're going to spend 10 months on and lose," said Steve Lange, a No Tax for Tracks member. "We have the attitude, we have the infrastructure, we have leadership."

Still, some of the campaign's most committed members acknowledge money is an issue.

While the referendum's supporters are counting on many of Pinellas' business and political leaders to make large contributions to an advocacy campaign, the opposition does not have the same deep pockets. Similarly, in 2010, Hillsborough's No Tax for Tracks group raised only $24,000, while the pro-transit group Moving Hillsborough Forward collected nearly $1.6 million to promote the issue.

In December, the Pinellas group formed a political action committee that has so far raised about $17,000, Haselden said. Organizers have purchased T-shirts and yard signs, letter openers and bumper stickers, all of which were being sold on Tuesday to support the group's cause. But TV ads and a mail campaign may be beyond the group's reach.

"We're just going to make sure we do our darn best to make sure we talk to people and show the other side," Haselden said in an interview earlier this month. "Unfortunately, they have millions of dollars to work with and we're just grass roots."

Supporters of the tax increase have yet to launch a formal campaign, though efforts to create one are underway, according to Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, who is leading the effort and has declined to say how much money advocates have raised.

In an interview earlier this month, Duncan said he expected opponents of the referendum would begin spreading their message early.

"I would assume they're not going to be less active," he said. "I would assume because we started this process earlier than Hillsborough ever did, that they might be more active."

Focus is on rail

Like their predecessors in Hillsborough, members of No Tax for Tracks are focused on the rail component of the Pinellas plan, which also includes a proposal to grow the county's public bus fleet and increase service hours and frequency. But it's the idea of building 24 miles of light rail between Clearwater and St. Petersburg, an undertaking projected to cost more than $1 billion, that has animated many of them.

"We don't think it's fair," said St. Petersburg resident John Burgess, who, with his wife Betsi, has been active in the opposition group for several years. The couple recently wrote a check for $6,000 to the campaign.

"We do own a home and we do pay property taxes, and we're happy to do that because we realize it's a responsibility," said John Burgess, 70. "But we don't think that everyone should have to pay for something that so few people will actually use."

Along with doubting that the car-loving people of Pinellas will ride the train, or that it will do anything to lessen congestion, Burgess also is skeptical of the county transit agency's ability to oversee a long and costly construction project.

Fix the bus system first, he argued, and then see if there's demand for a transit expansion.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

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