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Local group says many don't know proposed transit tax would expand Pinellas bus system

A PSTA diesel-electric SmartBus awaits passengers. Enhanced bus service is part of Greenlight Pinellas’ plan, but an unscientific survey found it’s not well known.
Published Mar. 27, 2014

With less than eight months remaining before Pinellas voters decide whether to support a tax increase for bus and rail, a St. Petersburg-based group's survey has found that most voters don't know the details of the proposal.

Called Greenlight Pinellas, the proposed transit plan would raise the county's sales tax from 7 to 8 percent, bringing in revenue to increase bus service by 65 percent and build 24 miles of light rail between St. Petersburg and Clearwater. But an unscientific survey of 1,600 registered voters in Pinellas conducted by the group People's Budget Review found most respondents were familiar only with the rail portion of the plan.

"There's almost a unilateral focus on light rail," said Aaron Dietrich, an organizer with the group who, along with several others, continued to survey bus riders on Wednesday morning at a station on 70th Avenue N.

A coalition of neighborhood groups, civic groups and union members, the People's Budget Review is primarily funded and organized by the Florida Public Service Union, which represents 1,200 workers in St. Petersburg. The group is not taking a position on Greenlight Pinellas — at least not yet — Dietrich said, but many of its survey questions cast the proposal in a positive light.

Distributed via Facebook and email, the group's survey did not target people of different backgrounds or likely voters. Most of its respondents were older, white residents, and a majority were male.

Overall, 57 percent of respondents said they would vote in favor of Greenlight Pinellas, while 30 percent were opposed and 13 percent were unsure.

When asked whether they were aware that the plan called for more bus service, 52 percent reported never hearing anything about that part of the proposal.

"There is definitely some ground to be made up to get out the word," said Don Ewing, a leader of Yes for Greenlight, the main group advocating for the referendum's passage.

Ewing said Pinellas residents might be more familiar with rail plans because the region has been debating the merits of rail, in one form or another, since at least 2010, when voters in Hillsborough rejected a referendum that would have raised the sales tax to pay for rail, an expanded bus system and road improvements. The following year, Gov. Rick Scott rejected federal money for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, a proposal that many continue to confuse with Pinellas' plans for a light rail system.

"I would say people are aware of Greenlight peripherally, but need to be given the facts of the plan," Ewing said. "That's the whole point of the campaign."

To Barbara Haselden, who leads the opposition group No Tax for Tracks, too much public money already has been spent on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's education campaign. Last year, the agency spent more than $400,000 on branding and messaging. This year, it has allocated roughly the same amount to spread the word about Greenlight Pinellas in a campaign that opponents see as deeply biased.

"I don't see how we can come to the conclusion that not enough has not been done," Haselden said.

The proposed bus expansion promises to decrease rider wait times and redraw routes for the first time in more than two decades.

Currently, along most PSTA routes, buses arrive once an hour. But under the agency's new plan, buses would run every 15 minutes on weekdays and weekends along major corridors like U.S. 19 and Ulmerton Road. On most nights, service on these routes would run until midnight.

Local roads that are slightly less busy, such as Belcher Road, would see buses arriving every 15 or 30 minutes on weekdays, with longer wait times — up to an hour — on weekends.

The plans also call for four bus routes from Pinellas to Tampa International Airport and to Tampa's downtown area. Two of the routes would pick up passengers in midcounty, while the other two would cater to residents in the northern and southern parts of the county.

For residents in North Pinellas, transit officials are proposing a bus rapid transit route on McMullen-Booth Road and an increase in the number of "flex" buses — a fleet of 10-seat minibuses that will circulate through Palm Harbor, East Lake and Oldsmar.

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

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