With elected leaders, environmentalists and activists in attendance, transit supporters Friday launched a nine-month campaign to persuade voters to back a one-penny sales tax hike to pay for a mass-transit system in Pinellas.
Realtors, construction firms and other companies are expected to raise up to $1 million for the advocacy campaign dubbed “Yes for Greenlight.” Voter approval in November would kick-start a $2.2 billion, 10-year project to expand bus service by 65 percent, add bus-only lanes to some major roads, and build a 24-mile light-rail link from Clearwater to St. Petersburg.
“This is about the future of Pinellas County,” said County Commissioner and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Chairman Ken Welch. “It’s about jobs; it’s about economic development.”
The campaign will be led by Ronnie Duncan, chair of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, and Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.
Private sector supporters include Raymond James and Tech Data, Duncan said. Greenlight is being backed by elected officials, local chambers of commerce, Connect Tampa Bay, the Sierra Club and the local NAACP.
Opposition to the Greenlight plan is led by No Tax for Tracks, a group of local tea party members, anti-tax activists and others who have raised more than $20,000 so far. Leaders of the group say the sales tax hike will harm the county’s economy, hit the county’s poorest residents in the pocket and create an expensive under-used transportation network.
Duncan announced the campaign will form an advisory committee of stakeholders and residents, including Don Ewing, president of the Council of North County Neighborhoods.
The campaign has registered “Yes for Greenlight” as a nonprofit organization with the Florida Division of Corporations and is expected to form a political committee to accept and report donations and campaign expenses.
Steinocher was involved with the 2010 transit referendum in Hillsborough County. Business and civic leaders backing that campaign raised more than $1.5 million, but voters rejected the measure. He said the efforts made by PSTA to build consensus from the public and the county’s 24 cities will avoid a repeat defeat, and he promised a more grass-roots campaign.
“You’re not going to see us spending money on glitzy TV campaigns,” Steinocher said. “I don’t think we need that. I think we need to talk to our neighbors, talk to our friends.”
Under the Greenlight plan, PSTA’s $30 million in annual revenue from property taxes would be replaced by the new sales tax, which would bring in about $130 million a year. PSTA leaders say at least one-third of sales tax is paid by tourists. According to PSTA figures, a family of four with an average income living in a home valued at about $250,000 would end up paying about $120 per a year in sales tax, roughly the same as their current PSTA property tax.
If voters reject the expansion, PSTA would continue to be funded by property taxes. Its leaders say they would have to slash the county’s already threadbare bus services by roughly 30 percent as the agency has been tapping reserves in recent years.