ST. PETERSBURG — Backers of the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum put the focus on St. Petersburg's Midtown area Thursday, casting the plan as a surefire way to boost redevelopment there.
Under a steamy midmorning sun, U.S. Rep Kathy Castor joined Midtown business owners on St. Petersburg College's 22nd Street S campus to tout Greenlight's potential to transport workers, students and visitors in and out of a poor area optimistic about the rebirth of its business district.
"If you talk to anyone here in south St. Petersburg, what you hear is, it's very difficult to travel around Pinellas County to get to those good-paying jobs," said Castor, a Democrat whose sprawling district includes the city's southern edge. "Buses often don't run on a regular schedule. Many people don't have a couple of cars in the garage to fight the traffic to get there. This is a community on the go, but we need those better transportation options to access the jobs."
If approved by a simple majority, Greenlight would raise the county's sales tax by a penny, to 8 cents on the dollar, to expand bus service throughout the county. It would also build a light-rail system stretching 24 miles between St. Petersburg and Clearwater, with a stop in the Gateway area, to connect those three employment centers. The sales tax would bring in about $100 million more a year than the roughly $30 million from the property tax that now funds the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
The Yes on Greenlight campaign timed the news conference as more than 250,000 ballots are arriving in Pinellas County mailboxes. The event served as a sort of geographic and demographic bookend to a similar play last week in which influential state Sen. Jack Latvala stood in downtown Dunedin to help sway North Pinellas voters.
The campaign has a potentially potent voting block in St. Petersburg's southern neighborhoods, where many low-income residents already rely on an anemic bus service. But those voters have to show up at the polls.
Greenlight opponents have criticized the transit plan as a regressive tax, especially for poor and low-income residents who wouldn't benefit from the elimination of the transit property tax.
Larry Newsome, owner of Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food restaurant in the Manhattan Casino, said expanded bus service would enhance the "renaissance" under way on 22nd Street.
Some restaurant workers take taxis to and from work because bus service doesn't run late enough, he said.
"If my employees and other employees of the businesses that are going to be along this corridor can get some relatively cheap transportation to their workplaces and back home, that's going to enhance the possibility for growing stronger," Newsome said.
Tony Macon, owner of Esquire Barber Shop and president of the Deuces Live community organization, said Greenlight's mass-transit system would bring visitors and customers to the area.
He also dismissed concerns that Greenlight would disproportionately hurt the poor.
"I feel Greenlight is helping you, putting something in your pocket if you get up off your behind and go to work."
Buses running later each day would be a boon for SPC students who want to take night classes but are hamstrung by the current limited schedule, said Timora Works, vice president of student government on the Midtown campus.
"They'll be able to take their classes and not worry about how they're going to get home."
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.