CLEARWATER — For once, someone does want to look like the back of a bus.
No Tax for Tracks, a group opposed to the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan, recently offered to pay $15,000 to advertise their logo on the back of five Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses.
But the group on Friday said it was told that the agency, which is funded through taxpayers dollars, does not allow political advertising and only accepts advertising for companies selling goods or services.
Yet, PSTA has been running ads promoting the Greenlight Pinellas plan on the rear of 10 buses and inside buses for several months, leading No Tax for Tracks leaders to accuse the agency of double standards.
“They're breaking the spirit of their own rules about getting involved in any kind of political messaging,” said Barbara Haselden, the group's campaign manager.
The Greenlight advertisement features the campaign logo, lists its website and includes the caption “The Future of Transit.”
PSTA officials said their ad is educational and point out that the website it directs people to contains information for voters to make an informed choice. The site also details how a “No” vote in the November referendum would mean severe cuts in bus service. The agency is planning to place the ad on 10 more buses.
“We are mandated by the state to conduct outreach and teach people about what we're planning to do,” said PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher. “The advertisement in no way endorses a “Yes” vote — we're just trying to get people to learn about Greenlight.”
Advertising on the rear of a bus costs $3,000 for a 12-week minimum.
The agency only receives advertising requests for a small percentage of its fleet of 200 buses so does not lose revenue when it runs its own ads, PSTA CEO Brad Miller said.
It would apply the same standard to No tax for Tracks as it would to Yes for Greenlight, the group campaigning for the transit referendum to pass, Miller said.
The controversy is the latest skirmish between supporters and opponents of Greenlight in what is increasingly becoming a heated referendum campaign.
One casualty was Yes for Greenlight Co-chairman Ronnie Duncan, who recently resigned from the campaign after Greenlight opponents said his position conflicted with his role as chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.
The Greenlight plan proposes to replace PSTA's $30 million annual revenue from property taxes with a one-penny sales tax, bringing in $130 million per year. If approved by voters, the money 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.
The plan has been backed by several cities, including St. Petersburg and Dunedin, and by civic groups, chambers of commerce, the NAACP and Sierra Club.
Residents across Pinellas will vote on the plan on Nov. 4.