DUNEDIN — The fight for the Greenlight Pinellas referendum may be won or lost in north county.
Supporters of the 1-cent transit tax are battling a perception among skeptical north county residents who don't think the plan offers enough benefits for them.
On Thursday, Yes on Greenlight trotted out a prominent Clearwater Republican who told them it does.
Standing in downtown Dunedin, state Sen. Jack Latvala announced he will be voting yes on Nov. 4.
"Frankly, if we're going to be a major-league county, we need to have some sort of better mass transit," Latvala said.
If approved by a majority of voters, Greenlight would increase the county's sales tax to 8 cents on the dollar to expand bus service and build a 24-mile light rail system between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The plan would cost about $2.2 billion to build and $130 million a year to operate. The current property tax that brings in about $30 million annually to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority each year would be reduced to zero.
Coming just six weeks before Election Day, Latvala's endorsement could help persuade moderate and conservative voters in North Pinellas, where voter turnout consistently is among the county's highest.
The stance of a well-known north county Democrat is representative of the battle the Greenlight campaign faces.
State Rep. Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor is a former New Yorker who says he understands the value of trains to move people, but the Greenlight rail line doesn't extend past Clearwater.
He said the buses he sees in north county have few riders.
"Do I want this type of transportation? Absolutely," said Zimmermann, who is up for re-election this year. "Do we need it right now when people are still struggling to stay in their homes? I don't think so. My feeling would be different if I lived in St. Petersburg, but in North Pinellas there's not much in it that serves us."
Joe Farrell, manager of the Yes on Greenlight campaign, said they the group is trying to change minds by explaining how the plan will affect north county.
"It's not that if you don't have rail, you're out of luck." Farrell said. "If you're improving the bus system, the two work together."
Buses that aren't full still provide critical service for riders and feed into core routes, and more frequent service would boost ridership, Farrell said. The bus routes will deliver people from north county to the light rail line.
Like the rest of the county, North Pinellas would see longer bus service hours seven days a week. There also would be a new rapid bus route running every 15 minutes on U.S. 19, Farrell said.
Two new express commuter routes also would be added. One would run from the Pasco County line to the Gateway/Carillon area via East Lake and McMullen-Booth roads. The other would travel from the Pasco line through Oldsmar to Tampa's Westshore area with service to Tampa International Airport.
PSTA's DART service that provides door-to-door service for the disabled and the elderly would run later in the evening and on the weekends, liberating many north county residents constrained by the current schedule, said former Pinellas County Commissioner Sallie Parks, who also spoke at Thursday's news conference. Her disabled husband is a former DART user.
Gregory Brady, who hosted the event at his Salon GW, said downtown merchants are excited about visitors that Greenlight's expanded trolley service from Clearwater to Dunedin could bring.
Latvala said he was "embarrassed" by the transportation options available for visitors who came to the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Greenlight, he said, also is a critical step toward a regional transit system that is necessary "to have any hope of keeping the Tampa Bay Rays here."
In an interview, Latvala said he doesn't believe the sales tax would hurt the poor. He said there are many elderly property owners in his district who would save money because they don't buy much beyond food and medicine, which are exempt from sales tax.
Barb Haselden, leader of the opposition group No Tax For Tracks, said she is not surprised or impressed by Latvala's endorsement.
"I think he's only coming out now that they're losing and hoping to sway some people, but he's made so many enemies I don't think he's going to be helping Greenlight," Haselden said. "He's just a crony capitalist. He's not about more efficiencies, he's about more pork."
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.