Pinellas voters have an opportunity to take the first bold step toward creating a regional transportation system for the 21st century. Greenlight Pinellas is a reasonable investment in the future that would provide better transportation options, create jobs and boost redevelopment. Approving the Nov. 4 referendum also would encourage Hillsborough County to keep pursuing its own transit plan, and it would build support for light rail to span the bay. This is a moment for Pinellas voters to lead Tampa Bay, to build on the county's successes and correct a weakness, to imagine the possibilities a robust public transit system would create for decades to come.
Tampa Bay is the largest metropolitan area without a viable transportation system that includes bus service and some form of rail. Pinellas and the region cannot compete for jobs and younger residents without more ambitious public transit that is reliable, available and affordable. It is an economic issue that affects tourism and employers, and it is a quality of life issue just as much as safe neighborhoods, good schools and vibrant cultural arts. It is Tampa Bay's missing piece.
Greenlight Pinellas is not drawn on the back of a napkin. The plan to dramatically improve bus service and build a 24-mile light rail line from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater has been years in the making. There have been hundreds of meetings and vigorous financial reviews. An alternative analysis of transit options has been completed, the light rail route has been set and the costs have been reasonably calculated. None of those tasks were completed four years ago before Hillsborough County voters rejected a similar transit plan.
Much of the debate about Greenlight has been about the viability of light rail. Yet light rail systems in Charlotte, Minneapolis and Phoenix have exceeded their original ridership projections, and nearly all of the nation's light rail systems are expanding. And Greenlight is not just about light rail. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would expand bus service by 65 percent, add rapid bus routes and run buses far more frequently. Improved bus service would have a far quicker impact than light rail. When light rail started running in 2024, its operating cost would be less than one-third the cost of operating the entire transit system.
The financial underpinnings of the $2.2 billion Greenlight plan appear to be sound. Assumptions about contributions of state and federal money are conservative, and allowances are made for bumps in the economy. The projected cost to build the light rail is in line with other systems. There also is the possibility that a private consortium could build and operate the rail system, which could significantly reduce cost.
The cost to Pinellas taxpayers is reasonable. A new 1-cent sales tax would raise $130 million a year, and one-third of that would be paid by tourists. The existing property tax for transit would be repealed. The bottom line: The owner of a home with the median Pinellas value of $173,000 and a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $14 more a year. And for families and older residents struggling to pay car-related expenses, better transit options would offer opportunities to save money.
Greenlight Pinellas is the first step toward building a regional transit system. If voters approve it, the next step would be a Hillsborough transit referendum in two years and serious talks about connecting the counties by a light rail system that crosses the bay. If voters reject Greenlight, the entire effort toward creating a regional transit system will be stalled.
Over the years, Pinellas voters wisely have approved investing local tax dollars in public schools, juvenile welfare programs and public works projects. This would be another smart investment in the future of the county and all of Tampa Bay. For the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting yes.