Setting The Scene For Pinellas Ballot Initiative On Transit

Besides weighing in on medical marijuana and a tight race for governor this fall, Pinellas County voters will decide a hot button-issue that directly impacts their time and money. On November 4, they will be asked to raise the county’s sales tax by one cent, from the current seven to eight cents per dollar. The program would generate $2.2 billion over 10 years.

That would pay for a one-two punch against traffic congestion: overhauling the Pinellas bus system and building a 24-mile light rail line from Clearwater to St. Petersburg.

Supporters say the rail line can be up and running in about 10 years. Transit officials plan to rebuild the existing bus system, doubling the size of the bus fleet and increasing service 65 percent. Other upgrades would include bus rapid transit routes with bus-only lanes in the county's busiest traffic corridors.

Planners will focus on bringing bus rapid transit service to routes that connect neighborhoods and major employment centers. Customers won't wait as long for a local bus, and they will be able to ride more frequently outside the county. Buses on routes designated as Core and Frequent routes will depart every 10 to 15 minutes. Buses will operate later at night and earlier in the morning.

Weekend service would increase 80 percent. Buses will run to Tampa and Tampa International Airport on evenings and weekends. Buses will change from a hub system, where most transfers take place at a central terminal to regular bus stops on the street.

Weighing In On Traffic Congestion

Nine months ahead of the election, partisans on each side are sharpening their messages and developing strategy to reach like-minded voters. At a February 7 rally for the Greenlight Pinellas sales tax amendment, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said relieving traffic congestion in the Tampa Bay area is an imperative. 

"It's all about jobs,'' he says. "It's all about economic development, It's about making us competitive not only with Polk County, but with Orlando, Miami and regions around the United States and internationally.''

Opponents of the transit tax insist Pinellas residents don't need a commuter train and better bus service for $3.2 billion through 2059.

"We don't need to mortgage our county and our kids,'' says Barbara Haselden, a St. Petersburg resident and co-founder of a local Tea Party chapter. She has become the public face of "No Tax for Tracks,'' an outgrowth of the Hillsborough County movement of the same name that fought a similar transit referendum in 2010.

Hillsborough voters rejected the referendum by 58 percent to 42 percent. Nine months before the election, Forbes ranked the Tampa Bay region as the worst among 60 major U.S. metro areas for commuting.

"When you're dead last, it's hard to argue with the case we've been making, which is commuters are suffering in this and we've got to do something,'' says Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "It's a terrible calling card for the business community.''

Opponents like Haselden insist that problems with the county bus system stem from mismanagement by the public operator, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Only a handful of routes attract enough riders to justify service, she says, in part because of hourlong waits to catch a ride. PSTA should prune unproductive routes and improve service, says Haselden.

Learn more by joining a community conversation hosted by 83 Degrees Media on Wednesday, March 12, from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm at Nova 535 in St. Petersburg. The 13th "Not Your Average Speakers'' event will feature a discussion about "Tampa Bay Mobility: Mapping The Economics of Transit.'' The event is free and open to the public. You can RSVP here

Steve Huettel, a freelance writer living in Tampa, is a former newspaper reporter in Florida and North Carolina. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.