Voters reject Greenlight Pinellas

If approved, the Greenlight Pinellas plan would raise the county's sales tax by a penny, to 8 cents on the dollar, to expand bus service by 65 percent and build a light rail system connecting St. Petersburg and Clearwater via the Gateway area. [Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority]
If approved, the Greenlight Pinellas plan would raise the county's sales tax by a penny, to 8 cents on the dollar, to expand bus service by 65 percent and build a light rail system connecting St. Petersburg and Clearwater via the Gateway area. [Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority]
Published Nov. 5, 2014

Standing at a historic crossroads, an overwhelming majority of Pinellas County voters chose the status quo, rejecting a plan that would have transformed the county's transportation network and given momentum to a similar effort across Tampa Bay.

Sixty-two percent voted no on the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum, refusing to pay an extra penny in sales tax to expand the county's bus service and build a 24-mile light rail system connecting St. Petersburg and Clearwater. The sales tax would have increased to 8 cents on the dollar, eliminated the bus system's property tax and brought in about $130 million annually for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to make the $2.2 billion plan a reality.

The margin of the loss shocked supporters. It won only two precincts north of 54th Avenue N in St. Petersburg .

"It's not the outcome that we expected, but the citizens have spoken and spoken clearly," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who also chairs the PSTA board. "But the transit conversation has to continue."

Opponents celebrated the rejection of what they called a massive boondoggle that would have burdened taxpayers for generations. A small but jubilant crowd celebrated in front of Hometown Insurors, the business of No Tax for Tracks campaign manager Barb Haselden.

"It's wonderful to see that 62 percent agree with us," Haselden said.

The results brought disappointment to both sides of the bay. Mass transit proponents saw Greenlight as a first step toward a regional mass transit network. Hillsborough County is developing its own referendum that could be on the ballot in 2016.

Now Greenlight supporters have to consider the big question: What now?

"You dust yourselves off and start all over again," said Hillborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who was in office when that county's referendum failed in 2010. "This is a long game."

• • •

Greenlight was three years in the making, but the real work awaited after a successful vote, said PSTA chief executive officer Brad Miller, who took a vacation day to wave a Yes on Greenlight sign at the Roberts Recreation Center in St. Petersburg.

The sales tax would have started in 2016, the bus expansion complete by 2021, and the light rail running by 2024.

Given how much work went into developing Greenlight, Miller said he will likely advise against a complete retreat.

"I don't necessarily believe that something is flawed with the Greenlight Pinellas plan as it's presented, but the board needs to weigh in on exactly what they it wants to do," Miller said.

Welch said the light rail component clearly was "a non-starter for most of the county."

"We don't have to go back to square one, but we go back to areas of consensus, and it seemed like improving the bus service, with bus rapid transit and express commuter service, had the most support," he said.

The PSTA board faces a difficult decision. The agency is up against its property tax rate cap and has dipped into reserves in recent years to maintain the current level of service. Getting back on firmer financial footing will likely require cuts.

One option concentrates on keeping core routes and cutting others. Another preserves as many routes as possible but increases wait times. Miller said he will likely recommend a combination.

Meanwhile, all eyes shift to Hillsborough.

"Obviously, it would've been nice to have a victory in Pinellas County because I think it would've helped the bay area recognize that we're all connected," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

"We're going to go make the case to the voters in Hillsborough County, which I think are far more progressive, far more inclined to believe that our future is better with a robust transportation system," Buckhorn said. "It's got to include bus, it's got to include rail, it's got to include additional roads, and it's got to include fixing potholes."

Stuart Rogel, who rallied corporate support for Greenlight Pinellas as president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Partnership, vowed to train his sights on Hillsborough.

"It's going to be as important tomorrow as it is today," said Rogel, who watched the results come in with a subdued crowd at the Yard of Ale in Clearwater.

• • •

The fight over Greenlight sparked one of the most contentious political battles in Pinellas County's history.

The Yes on Greenlight camp pitched the plan as way to kick the county's economy into high gear by attracting companies and young workers and spurring development along the rail line. The campaign raised $1.1 million with the help of big names such as Raymond James Financial, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rays and Lightning. The plan had the support of elected officials of all political stripes, endorsements from 16 of Pinellas County's 24 cities and nearly all chambers of commerce.

Supporters knew that North Pinellas, where residents tend to be more conservative and car-centric, would be a challenge. In response to criticism that there wasn't enough in Greenlight for the upper reaches of the county, proponents pointed to the doubling of bus service there and noted that many households would have saved money when the property tax was eliminated.

No Tax for Tracks preached an anti-tax, anti-rail message, denouncing Greenlight as a boondoggle that would attract few riders. They emphasized that Pinellas would have the highest sales tax in the state and pounced on some recent missteps by PSTA, including the mishandling of a federal grant. The group raised about $96,000, using a chunk on a television commercial, but relied mainly on social media, email blasts and thousands of bright red yard signs.

Haselden said the results are a mandate on the Greenlight plan.

"I think the people of Pinellas County do not want their dollars being spent on an idea that has been soundly rejected."

Times staff writers Andrew Meacham and Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.