Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
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Suncoast mayors boost public transit

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— Four area mayors, including Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg and Bob Buckhorn of Tampa, talked up the benefits of well-funded public transit Tuesday, but the audience did not lack its usual critics.

A proposed penny-per-dollar sales tax increase to fund a sweeping public transit overhaul in Pinellas County is seen as a cure to local gridlock that will attract a younger workforce to some and a waste of money to others. The debate comes to a head in a referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot.

“The future of the bay area is going to be deretmined by the outcome of this election,” Buckhorn told the audience. “I can tell you that in no uncertain terms.”

The event was part of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce’s Green Bench Conversation Series, and it served as a chance for the mayors, each of whom support expanded transit, to practice their pitches for Greenlight Pinellas. Unlike many public discussions about the issue, the Tuesday event’s format did not allow for critics to have their say.

Instead, a few dozen opponents lined up outside the discussion’s venue, West St. Petersburg’s freeFall Theatre, holding signs visible to passing drivers with anti-Greenlight Pinellas messages. Some of the critics went inside the venue, West St. Petersburg’s freeFall Theatre, to hear what was said.

With Buckhorn sitting among three Pinellas mayors, St. Petersburg’s Rick Kriseman, Clearwater’s George Cretekos and Indian Rocks Beach’s R.B. Johnson, the discussion focused on regionalism.

“Hillsborough and Pinellas are not competing against each other, we are complementing each other,” Buckhorn said. “We have to have a robust transit network. We are far less competitive without one.”

On Nov. 4, Pinellas voters will decide whether to increase the county sales tax to 8 percent while eliminating the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s property tax levy.

Proponents say the proposed plan to increase bus service by 65 percent and to add rapid bus corridors and a light rail will attract a younger, better-educated workforce and spark more intelligent redevelopment of Florida’s most built-out county. There is hope to eventually connect Pinellas and Hillsborough via light rail across Tampa Bay.

Opponents, meanwhile, say approving the referendum would give Pinellas the highest sales tax in the state. They question the overall feasibility of light rail in terms of revenue and passenger volume as well as a government agency’s ability to administer such a sweeping overhaul with honesty and efficiency.

Much of the panel’s pro-transit argument Tuesday was the apparent tendency of young college educated professionals to move to cities where having a car is optional.

“You and I are getting old, but the people that are coming in behind us, they look to walk to work. They look to ride a bike,” Cretekos said.

Contrasting that, he said, is the region’s current mode of dealing with population growth: building and widening roads like Ulmerton Road and U.S. 19.

“No sooner than you build the road and it’s open, it’s overcrowded,” Cretekos said. “We can’t just continue to build roads. We need to have the alternatives.”

Hillborough County saw a similar debate in 2010, months before Buckhorn was elected mayor. Opponents expressed distrust in the government’s ability to handle the system and questioned whether actual ridership numbers would reflect what was being projected. The referendum was crushed.

“You need to dig deeper than these statements of good, well-meaning people who are not in tune with the real .... details of what Greenlight Pinellas really consists of,” said Barbara Haselden, a spokeswoman for the anti-Greenlight Pinellas campaign, No Tax for Tracks.

Haselden said some of the panel made several misleading claims, especially regarding possible future rail links to Tampa and Tarpon Springs.

“Each thing we’re talking about is a different referendum,” she said. “This is one rail line from downtown Clearwater to downtown St. Petersburg.”

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