1. Florida Politics

Romano: A bus ride shows the risks and possibilities of Greenlight Pinellas

Published Oct. 2, 2014

So, the skeptic and the businessman hop on a bus bound for nowhere special.

The businessman (St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce chief Chris Steinocher) has been asked to convince the skeptic (me) of the virtues of the Greenlight Pinellas referendum.

We begin at midday on a half-filled bus idling near Williams Park in St. Petersburg. The driver has yet to close the doors, and Steinocher is already in high gear.

"People around here see the bigger picture," he said. "They know this can move the entire community forward, whether you ride in one of these or not.

"It's kind of like the fluoride issue. We need to raise our voice to say, "Wait a second, this is not a bad thing. This is not poison.' This is what good communities do."

And this is also the most strategic place for Steinocher to begin his argument.

If you think the cost is high (it is), if you think the demand is overstated (it might be), if you think problems are inevitable (they are), you must at least admit this:

Tampa Bay is well behind the mass transit curve.

Forget the big cities with their massive subways. Tampa Bay is trailing most other similar-sized markets when it comes to rail systems.

San Diego, Portland, St. Louis, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Charlotte, New Orleans, Memphis, Seattle and Pittsburgh are among those on board. Tampa Bay may not be the only large market lacking a major rail system, but it's in the minority.

So, does a large population guarantee success?

Not necessarily.

I tell Steinocher that a similar argument was used to attract major-league baseball to this market, but the Rays have struggled financially because Tampa Bay has some unique characteristics. He suggests those same characteristics — the high number of service industry workers, for instance — would actually be a boon for mass transit.

"One of the real aggravating parts to this is when the opponents say this will hurt the poor," he said. "Telling people they have no options other than buying a car is not helping the poor. For a person close to minimum wage, earning $18,000 to $24,000 a year, a car can be as much as a $10,000-a-year hit. How can they afford anything else?

"Can you imagine if we could get folks out of the burden of a second car? They could put that money into owning a home, and isn't that the type of community we want?"

As we talk, the bus stops and starts, picking up and dropping off people along Fourth Street. A mother and young son exit. A worker from the VA hospital hops on. A restaurant worker sits behind us, and a college student will soon join the crowd.

We exit for the return trip downtown and stand waiting in the sun at a bus stop with no cover. The sweat rolling off my forehead asks the next question for me.

"Go to any other community, and I'll show you what a real bus stop looks like, but this is how we are invested here right now," Steinocher said. "This is not an appropriate investment. It needs to be more efficient. We know that."

By trip's end, I am not yet convinced that Greenlight Pinellas will work exactly as envisioned. And yet I'm fairly certain the potential is worth the investment.

This is what communities do. They come together to create something for the greater good. The tax bump is real, but so are the possibilities.