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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Transit campaign off to hopeful start

Supporters of Pinellas County's November transit referendum should be encouraged by a new poll that shows strong support for funding expanded bus service and a new rail system as part of a modern transportation system. While the election is 11 months away, the poll results offer a road map to Pinellas officials on how to present a compelling case — and a hint at how Hillsborough County could move ahead in helping develop a regional system.

The poll by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay found that 55 percent of Pinellas registered voters support the transit plan, which calls for a 1 percent sales tax for transit that would replace a current property tax for transit. Another 36 percent said they would oppose the measure, and 9 percent were unsure. Though the poll's margin of error means that support could be slightly less than an actual majority, the numbers are still strong with just more than one-third of the voters opposing the plan.

The results show a promising base of support for Greenlight Pinellas supporters to build on in the coming year, and they reflect the impact of a public information campaign that got an early start in presenting the transit package in clear and practical terms. One key finding in the poll is that support for the referendum remains constant, from young adults to seniors. That broad support is vital, and it speaks to the growing understanding that voters have of mass transit's importance to the future of Florida's most densely populated county.

Going forward, public officials need to work with the private sector in continuing to push the merits of Greenlight Pinellas. The plan calls for expanding bus service and building a 24-mile rail line between downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Clearwater. The project will make it cheaper and easier to navigate Pinellas, bring development and jobs along the rail line, and could be the initial hub of a rail link over the bay. On that score, Hillsborough has a lot at stake, too, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is sending the right messages by declaring his support for the Pinellas effort and working in Hillsborough to bring a similar transit plan to the table.

More elected leaders in Pinellas need to step up. One major reason Hillsborough's transit package failed in 2010 was that only two elected leaders, then-Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, had the courage to take on the antitax crowd. With area residents still uncertain about the economy, officials will need to make a pocketbook case why the referendum will make for a better quality of life, better jobs and a better future. This poll at least shows that supporters will be speaking to a receptive audience.