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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Five fears, facts on Greenlight

COST OF RAIL

Claim: Light rail costs too much and is a failure in other communities. Greenlight will not qualify for federal loans and grants because of low bus ridership. Cost overruns or an economic downturn will doom it.

Facts: The 24-mile light rail system is expected to cost $65 million to $72 million per mile for a total construction cost of $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion. The average cost per mile is in line with light rail systems in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Portland. Federal loans and grants will be needed, but the rankings for federal grants are based on other factors besides bus ridership, including allowing for rezoning for redevelopment near the rail line. Pinellas has embraced those new land use codes. The financial projections are conservative and provide some allowance for lower than expected property tax collections.

TAXPAYER BURDEN

Claim: The 1 cent sales tax will cost taxpayers too much. Local officials cannot be trusted to rely on the sales tax and repeal the transit property tax.

Facts: The 1 cent sales tax would replace an existing property tax for transit, starting in 2016. Pinellas homeowners would pay an average of $14 more a year, and a third of the revenue raised would be paid by tourists. 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. There are adequate provisions in the pact between the county and PSTA to ensure the property tax disappears, and state lawmakers also will seek legislation to repeal the property tax if Greenlight passes.

BUS RIDERSHIP

Claim: Nobody wants to ride the bus.

Facts: PSTA ridership has been rising and hit another monthly record in August. It operates about 40 bus and trolley routes now, but waits between buses can be an hour or longer and service is limited on nights and weekends. Greenlight would increase bus service by 65 percent overall and by 80 percent on weekends, add rapid bus service along key routes and run buses every 15 minutes along main routes. There would be more circulator routes in smaller vehicles to take passengers to main bus lines. Regular and more predictable bus schedules should increase ridership, and projections are in line with comparable transit systems.

DEVELOPMENT

Claim: Rail systems do not spur new development.

Facts: The Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization projects more than 90,000 new jobs and more than 123,000 new residents in the next 25 years would result from Greenlight. Projections can be off, but Charlotte, Phoenix and Minneapolis point to significant new development along their light rail lines in recent years. When the Pinellas light rail route and station locations are finalized, private developers could compete to enhance the light rail stations as part of their developments.

STATUS QUO

Claim: Bus service can work just fine on existing revenue if the routes are adjusted.

Facts: That is not feasible. PSTA has relied on property tax increases and raiding reserves in recent years to increase ridership. It is near its maximum property tax rate, and the county spends far less per capita on public transit than cities such as Salt Lake City, St. Louis and Milwaukee. If Greenlight fails, PSTA would have to significantly reduce service to make ends meet. Service would be cut by up to 28 percent by 2017, with no service after 9 p.m. and limited service on weekends. Greenlight critics say the existing Penny for Pinellas could be used to improve bus service, but that money cannot be spent for transit operations unless the Legislature changes the law.

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