The single issue in Tuesday's election that holds the greatest promise for positive change in Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay region is the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum. Pinellas voters have an opportunity to make a smart investment in the future by approving a 1-cent sales tax to create a modern transit system with robust bus service and a 24-mile light rail line from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater. This could be the first step in creating a regional transit system for the 21st century that makes Tampa Bay more competitive for younger residents, better jobs and more tourism.
Here are 10 reasons for Pinellas voters to seize the moment and vote for Greenlight:
1 Tampa Bay has to compete. This region is the nation's largest urban area without a modern transportation system that includes rail, and nearly all of those existing rail systems have plans to expand. Employers and younger workers see transit as a quality of life issue.
2 Better transit means better access to jobs. Workers need more options to get to jobs in downtown St. Petersburg, the Gateway area, the beaches and North Pinellas. Tampa Bay has far fewer jobs within a 30-minute transit commute than cities such as Denver and Pittsburgh, which have a similar number of workers.
3 It's not just about rail. Bus service would increase by 65 percent. There would be added rapid bus service along key routes, and buses would run every 15 minutes along main routes. Service would be expanded on nights and weekends. Ridership would increase with more frequent, reliable service.
4 Light rail would create jobs and trigger redevelopment. Projections of thousands of jobs and new residents over decades can be rough guesses. But Charlotte, Phoenix and Minneapolis are among the cities with rail that have seen significant development triggered by their investment in rail.
5 The price tag for light rail is reasonable. This project has been well vetted, and the construction costs are in line with light-rail systems in cities such as Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. State and federal money will be needed in addition to the local sales tax, but Pinellas should be competitive for those grants and loans.
6 The public cost would be shared. An existing property tax for transit would be repealed, and one-third of the sales tax revenue would come from tourists. Pinellas homeowners would pay an average of $14 more a year. Homeowners with houses valued at $190,000 and a $50,000 homestead exemption would break even. Those with homes worth more than $190,000 would save money.
7 More roads aren't the answer. Pinellas is Florida's most densely populated county, and there is not enough money or enough space to keep adding lanes to clogged roads. As more residents find urban living attractive in downtown St. Petersburg and other hubs, adding more cars to existing streets would diminish the quality of life.
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8 The status quo is not an option. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has set ridership records, even with service that needs to be expanded. But the existing service has been sustained by raising the property tax and raiding reserves. If Greenlight fails, existing bus service would have to be cut significantly.
9 The next chance could be years away. Four years already have gone by since Hillsborough County voters defeated a similar transit referendum. Pinellas expects to hold voter referendums to renew money for juvenile welfare programs in 2016 and the Penny for Pinellas in 2017. If transit loses Tuesday, it's hard to predict when transit would be back on the ballot. But it would be back at some point, because the region cannot prosper without better transit.
10 Greenlight is the beginning, not the end. If Pinellas voters take the first step Tuesday toward creating a regional transit system, it will encourage Hillsborough voters to approve a similar plan in 2016. It will get Pasco County more enthused about being included. It also will trigger more serious discussions with state and federal officials about building light rail across Tampa Bay to connect Pinellas and Hillsborough.