Campaign for transit sales tax gears up

Published July 23, 2013

Pinellas County residents have a choice, and it's a stark one, said Brad Miller, chief executive of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

Voters can approve a transit sales tax referendum in 2014 that would pay to dramatically expand the county's transit system. Or, they can vote no, a decision that would mean slashing bus service by 28 percent and buying time to revisit a transit overhaul in the future.

"These are the cold, hard, mathematical facts," Miller said recently to a room of civic leaders. They were meeting to discuss Pinellas Greenlight, the public awareness campaign for the referendum.

County commissioners seem poised to approve putting the referendum on the ballot in 2014. The initiative seeks to increase the county sales tax by a penny to fund mass transit and eliminate the PSTA property tax.

The campaign's challenge will be to get the initiative into the minds of residents. With $395,000 in public funds paying for Tampa-based public relations firm Tucker Hall, the Pinellas Greenlight campaign has reached a reported 20,000 people so far through promotional materials, workshops and meetings.

Tucker Hall is not allowed to tell people how to vote, but it is pushing the Greenlight brand with social media and swag, such as brand-emblazoned tote bags.

PSTA officials said they aren't using the threat of potential bus cuts in messaging. Instead, PSTA officials said Greenlight will be focused on economic growth, fiscal sustainability and environmental benefits.

Local leaders brainstormed messaging ideas recently, listing community members they want to reach, from bike co-op members to high schoolers without driver's licenses.

The transit tax would provide funding for buses to run much more frequently, officials said. Longer hours would extend service into the night and weekends. More shelters would be built. And eventually, 24 miles of light rail would be built to connect Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The light rail system would take 10 to 15 years to begin running, and it would cost about $1.7 billion over 30 years, officials said.

Don Ewing, president of the Council of North County Neighborhoods, said this is Pinellas County's chance to become a transit leader in the bay area. Hillsborough voters rejected a proposal in 2010 to raise the sales tax by a penny to pay for a mix of commuter light rail, expanded bus service and roads.

"We're doing a better job, hopefully, of getting you involved to answer that question of why an enhanced transportation system would be good," Ewing said.

Barbara Haselden of the South Pinellas 912 Patriots tea party group said the transit overhaul is unnecessary.

"Doing nothing is an option," she said. "We're built out. Perhaps we need to get more efficient. … We're talking about something our children are going to have to pay for in 10 years or 20 years if it hits the wall."

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Some other attendees had concerns that development spurred by improved transit could lead to displacement.

Ridership in the county has increased 20 percent, despite $40 million in cuts since 2007.

"This is about developing a 21st century transportation plan for the county, or not," Miller said. "And that is how we've presented it."

Claire McNeill can be reached at Twitter: @clairemcneill.