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Can Hillsborough's transit success translate to Pinellas?

 
Members of All for Transportation celebrate at their downtown Tampa office on Tuesday as election results show voters approved the sales tax hike to pay for tranportation improvements. [Courtesy of All for Transportation]
Members of All for Transportation celebrate at their downtown Tampa office on Tuesday as election results show voters approved the sales tax hike to pay for tranportation improvements. [Courtesy of All for Transportation]
Published Nov. 10, 2018

Hillsborough County voters have done what was once unthinkable in the Tampa Bay area: voted to raise their taxes to pay for transportation improvements.

In 2010, Hillsborough voters rejected a similar referendum. Pinellas voters did the same in 2014. And in 2016 the Hillsborough County Commission wouldn't even let voters have a choice, voting 4-3 to not put a referendum on that year's ballot.

But after a decade of frustration, the dreams of transit advocates will now become a reality. Hundreds of millions will be spent upgrading sidewalks, bike paths, roads and bus systems — and finally building the bay area's first mass transit system.

So if Hillsborough can do it, why can't Pinellas?

The success of the transportation and school referendums in Hillsborough — where voters chose to pay the highest sales tax in the state — has emboldened some Pinellas leaders to start thinking about the 2020 election cycle.

"(Hillsborough) just goes to show sometimes it takes a couple bites at the apple to get the community buy-in and level of support," said St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice.

She said it's not too early to start talking about whether Pinellas should pursue a similar referendum in 2020. In fact, she expects that idea to be raised at a January workshop to discuss how a strategy for increasing transportation funds in Pinellas.

But even if another transportation referendum were to reach a Pinellas ballot, University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor emeritus of political science Darryl Paulson doubts voters would approve it.

First there's demographics: Hillsborough has become a blue county. It went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the 282,641 voters (57 percent) who approved the tax on Tuesday also put Democrats in control of the county commission for the first time since 2004.

Pinellas is redder, going for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. But though the county broke blue for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum on Tuesday, Paulson called that merely a "blue tint."

While the county's demographics are getting younger, Paulson said, they're not that young. The latest data shows 56 percent of Pinellas voters are ages 51 and up, or 376,150 people. The largest age group of voters, 27 percent, is age 66 and over.

Those more conservative voters may have a hard time seeing the benefits of a tax increase, just like they did in 2014 when 62 percent rejected the Greenlight Pinellas transportation tax plan.

"The people pushing for them were never able to convince the people of Pinellas about the cost-benefit ratio," Paulson said.

He fears building a transit system in built-out Pinellas could prove to be too expensive in such a densely populated county.

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"They haven't convinced me they have the magic bullet at this time to convince the majority of Pinellas County residents (to vote for transit)," he said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was impressed with how the Hillsborough referendum was structured and sees a road map for Pinellas to follow.

The group that led Hillsborough's effort, All for Transportation, promised that 54 percent of the hundreds of millions that will be raised would be spent on roads, sidewalks and trails. That will benefit rural voters far more than mass transit might. That gave everyone in Hillsborough a reason to vote for it.

"You've got to do something they see a benefit to," Kriseman said. "We should model it."

But the mayor wouldn't say if he supported going for it in 2020.

"We really have to have all our ducks in a row if we're going to do it, because the worst thing that can happen is we bring it back and we fail," he said. "That'd be a disaster."

Rice said she thinks the attitudes of voters toward transit has changed since Greenlight failed. She pointed to new undertakings such as the ferry, bike sharing and expanding the downtown looper and the city's bike lanes. The plan to add bus rapid transit from downtown St. Petersburg to the beaches could also win over voters.

"It's about learning from the failures of past referendums and starting to build, slowly but surely, on small successes," Rice said.

Christina Barker, a leader in the All for Transportation effort, also worked on Greenlight Pinellas. She said the lessons learned in 2014 helped this year. If Hillsborough had a transit-only referendum on the ballot, she said, it would not have passed. Expanding the range of projects improved its chances.

"We brought a lot of lessons to bear when we crafted the plan and asked, 'How do you garner the support of a majority of voters?'" Barker said. "It's not an easy thing we're asking for people to make this investment."

Ultimately, Barker attributed Hillsborough's success to good timing, a bottom-up approach and crafting a plan that reflected the needs of an entire county, not just urban commuters.

"At the end of the day, I think people were seeing the problem getting worse and a plan that's gotten better," Barker said. "I do think there is an appetite here for this kind of investment."

It took Hillsborough two tries to finally pass a transportation tax. Barker said that's exactly why Pinellas shouldn't be afraid to keep trying.

"I'm glad the broad support we had in Hillsborough is having folks in Pinellas re-evaluate what is possible," she said. "I don't think any community should be afraid of failure."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.