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Polls differ on Greenlight Pinellas transit proposal

Tribune staff


— Recent polls have provided a confusing picture on whether the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan will win the backing of voters in November.

Surveys conducted this year show strong support among residents for better transit but suggest that the support wavers when residents are asked whether they are willing to pay for more buses and light rail. One recent StPetePolls survey found only 41 percent of 1,679 registered voters were willing to pay more in taxes to fund better transit.

But in their pitch to potential campaign donors, leaders of Friends of Greenlight are offering a far rosier picture of the referendum’s outcome.

The political committee that is expected to raise more than $1 million to back the Greenlight plan reported to members of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and other local companies that support for Greenlight is at 58 percent “after informing voters on a number of messages.”

Its memo to potential supporters states the Greenlight Pinellas campaign and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which operates county buses, are well liked among voters who have heard of them.

Another claim is the Greenlight plan has a majority of support in all regions of the county, even in North Pinellas, which would see improved bus service but not benefit from the proposed 24-mile light-rail line linking Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

But those claims are questioned by some observers, including Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government and Florida politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

“It defies logic that it could be that much in front,” Paulson said. “They talk about majority support in both south county, mid-county and North Pinellas. I have a difficult time believing they have support in North Pinellas.”

The advocacy campaign has raised roughly $67,000 in only a few weeks including a $50,000 donation from Duke Energy, whose state president, Alex Glenn, chairs the campaign’s fundraising committee. Campaign leaders are promising another major announcement Friday.

“A modern, 21st century transit system is critical to the overall economic success of the Bay Area and an improved quality of life for all residents who call Tampa Bay home,” Duke spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau said in an email Wednesday. “Duke Energy has been supportive of this economic effort as well as other like efforts through our involvement in the Tampa Bay Partnership and various chamber activities.”

The numbers in Greenlight’s memo are based on a private poll conducted in February by SGS, a political consultant firm based in Gainesville. The company polled 409 county residents. The poll’s margin of error was 4.9 percent.

Yes for Greenlight campaign manager Joe Farrell said SGS’s poll is proof that most voters will back Greenlight once they hear more information about it. The group has not released the script used for the telephone poll nor a breakdown of respondents.

“It’s done by a firm that has good name recognition,” Farrell said. “I’m happy with the way the work was done.”

North Pinellas is seen as a potential weak area for Greenlight, with many older residents and a higher number of Republican voters.

Farrell said he stands by the data from the SGS poll and that improved services such as Bus Rapid Transit and a doubling of current bus services will win over many residents in that part of the county.

“When they see the benefit they get from increased bus service, the BRT, the lowering of property taxes and a fairer tax system that comes out of this, more and more voters in North County will be in favor of this,” Farrell said.

But local pollster Matt Florell, who owns StPetePolls, said SGS’s sample size is too small to allow a scientific analysis of separate parts of the county.

“You can take the county as a whole, but you can’t drill it down,” Florell said.

He said his polls have showed that beginning a survey with general questions about support for transit will likely boost results in favor of Greenlight, but he warned that may not be repeated when residents actually vote Nov. 4.

“The ballot is not going to have leading questions,” he said. “That will have a negative impact.”

Paulson said local polling increasingly has become unreliable because of the increasing number of people who only have mobile telephones. Many of those people are not polled because of federal restrictions.

He said the key for Greenlight will be to mirror Pinellas County’s success at getting voters to back the Penny for Pinellas campaigns.

“They had a lot of money and they used it effectively by convincing people there was something in Penny for Pinellas for everyone,” Paulson said. “There is a core support out there — they have to convince people it’s at a reasonable cost and will produce reasonable results, which is good ridership.”