With a vote on a major transportation initiative less than a year away in Pinellas County, voters on both sides of Tampa Bay narrowly support the idea of a sales tax increase to pay for expanding mass transit, according to a new poll.
But many others remain skeptical, with support falling slightly since last year.
Sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay, the new poll surveyed 625 registered voters Dec. 12 through 17.
It asked those in Hillsborough whether they would support increasing the sales tax to expand bus service and passenger rail. Pinellas voters were asked where they stood on a referendum in November 2014 asking essentially the same question.
Enthusiasm for a mass transit expansion was greater in Pinellas, where 55 percent of voters surveyed said they would back the referendum, 36 percent said they would oppose it, and 9 percent were unsure.
In Hillsborough, where voters defeated a similar referendum in 2010, 51 percent of respondents said they would support raising the sales tax to pay for buses and rail, and 44 percent opposed the idea. Five percent were unsure.
The survey's margin of error was 5.7 percentage points in Pinellas and 5.4 points in Hillsborough.
But the Times' poll suggests that support in both counties is not as strong as it was a year ago.
In December 2012, a poll by the Times and others asked Hillsborough and Pinellas residents: "Would you be supportive of spending public or tax money to bring light rail mass transit to parts of the Tampa Bay area?"
In Hillsborough, 56 percent of those surveyed said "yes." In Pinellas, 60 percent responded affirmatively.
The slight drop in support comes as Pinellas winds down a taxpayer-financed campaign called Greenlight Pinellas to educate the public about its transit proposal.
"We do think that we have gotten out there with Greenlight Pinellas information to more people than ever before," said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller. He said the latest poll numbers are an improvement over figures he'd seen from a few years ago. "But as we get closer over the next year, it certainly is a challenge we have to face."
If anything, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, support for transit is growing, with the poll results reflecting a "very different dynamic" than in 2010.
"There's a lot of momentum towards resolving our transportation issues," he said. "I think it's a recognition that rail must be a component of that — not all of it, but a component. It's also an acknowledgement that we can't build our way out of the problem with just roads."
A path to growth
Pinellas residents repeatedly cited traffic — especially on U.S. 19 — as a reason to support the referendum. Many also said building up the county's network of bus routes and adding rail would boost the local economy.
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"One of the most critical issues to the Tampa Bay area and its growth is our ability to move people," said Thomas Borschel, 65, a St. Petersburg resident who participated in the Times' poll. "I think that kind of transit plan is more effective than our existing network of highways."
Among those who opposed the referendum, several said current bus riders should bear the cost of the system's expansion.
Dean Markley has lived in Pinellas for 28 years and has ridden a PSTA bus only once, he said, so why should he pay a higher sales tax for more buses?
"I look at the transportation system as an independent business that needs to be run like a business," said the 66-year-old Palm Harbor resident. "They need to look at alternatives, like raising the cost of a ride."
Pinellas' current proposal calls for a tax swap. Instead of paying an annual property tax for transportation, residents would pay a higher sales tax that's expected to bring in more money.
The Times' latest poll also looked at whether voters' ages bore any relationship to their response. It found no connection in Pinellas, where equal percentages of people 18 to 54 and 55 or over supported the referendum.
But in Hillsborough, the link was clear, with 56 percent of respondents 18 to 54 saying they supported a mass transit expansion. Among older respondents, only 43 percent said they would support such an initiative.
Avery Morgan, an 80-year-old St. Petersburg resident, said his age makes him more likely to support the referendum, though he's not thrilled at the prospect of paying a higher sales tax.
"In the near term, I'm not going to be a user of mass transit," he said, "but I think as I get older, there may be a situation where it makes sense."
'Bumper to bumper'
In Hillsborough, congestion is a big reason Debbra Gottfried of Tampa would support a tax increase to expand transit.
"Bumper to bumper everywhere," said Gottfried, 78, a retiree who works at a South Tampa preschool. "Have you been on Dale Mabry after 12 o'clock in the afternoon?"
Gottfried said she voted for the proposed transit tax three years ago and would do so again.
"I think you need to be taxed if you want some of the pluses," she said.
But a transit tax would be one more burden on families struggling to emerge from the recession, stay-at-home mom Chelsi McLochlin said.
"I oppose any tax increase," said McLochlin, 26, of Tampa. "Everybody's trying to get back on their feet. … I really don't think (mass transit) is a bad idea. I just don't think it's the time."
Poll results on both sides of the bay encourage Buckhorn.
"That Greenlight Pinellas referendum is important to us," he said. "I'm going to do whatever I can to help them get that passed because I think that will help us build momentum for whatever Hillsborough ends up doing."
For the second year, the city of Tampa plans to lobby the Legislature to allow Florida's largest cities to opt out of the current requirement that sales tax referendums be countywide.
"It's going to be an uphill struggle," Buckhorn said. But he sees progress from a transportation policy leadership group that includes the Hillsborough County Commission and the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.
It also helps that Tampa International Airport's master plan is attuned to transit and that the Florida Department of Transportation recognizes that a reconstruction of the Howard Frankland Bridge should accommodate rail or bus rapid transit.
"All the pieces are lining up for a communitywide consensus," Buckhorn said, "and that's a good thing."