Greenlight Pinellas – Successes and Challenges

The Greenlight Pinellas Logo. Credit: Greenlight Pinellas/PSTA.
The Greenlight Pinellas Logo. Credit: Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

For the past several months, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) has been engaged in educating the public about Greenlight Pinellas, a comprehensive public transit expansion plan that encompasses improved and expanded bus services, a redesigned bus network, and eventual implementation of passenger rail services. The plan is aimed at providing a dedicated funding source for PSTA, while reducing traffic congestion along Pinellas’ many clogged highways. This initiative is also the backbone of a voter referendum that has been placed on the November, 2014 ballot.

Currently, Pinellas County devotes a portion of property taxes to fund public transit services within the county. Since 2007, property tax revenue has dropped, causing PSTA to encounter a deficit. This in-turn, forced PSTA to slash service, even on some popular routes, in order to keep the agency stable during the recession. PSTA has also had to use its reserve funds to help maintain existing services, something that PSTA officials say they can’t do much longer. The aim of Greenlight Pinellas (which I’ll also refer to in this post as just Greenlight) is to move away from the property tax and instead use a sales tax to help fund transit improvements.

A map showing the various proposed bus system improvements that would be made if Greenlight passes, as well as the county's proposed Light Rail corridor. Credit: Greenlight Pinellas/PSTA.
A map showing the various proposed bus system improvements that would be made if Greenlight passes, as well as the county’s proposed Light Rail corridor. Please keep in mind that the black dashed line indicates a future passenger rail link between the Gateway region of Pinellas and Tampa. This link is contingent on further funding that would be needed from both Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties to incorporate passenger rail into the northbound Howard Frankland Bridge replacement. A MutliModal center is currently being planned by the Florida Department of Transportation for the WestShore area in Hillsborough County. Credit: Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

While PSTA has been planning to put forth a voter referendum of their own for quite sometime, their efforts to put forth the referendum became an increasing priority after the failure of the 2010 Hillsborough County transit referendum. Many transit supporters like myself, see the passage of Greenlight as an open door for Hillsborough leaders to put forth a second attempt at passing their transit referendum.

If the voter measure is approved, PSTA will be able to obtain the added funds it needs to carry out these improvements. The implementation of system improvements will utilize a phased approach; with the first phase (2015/2016) comprising of bus network restructuring and adding Saturday service to the two existing express routes (100X and 300X). The second phase would usher in expanded local and express bus services, as well as new regional connections, FLEX services, and circulators. The third phase would bring forth Bus Rapid Transit and lay the groundwork for Light Rail to begin the design process. Finally, the fourth phase would allow for the county’s first Light Rail line to be constructed, beginning operation by 2025.

Timeline.

Below is a brief timeline of how the Greenlight Pinellas initiative has advanced.

  • Greenlight Pinellas was formally launched in 2012, with numerous outreach efforts taking place since then (this includes informal conversations with the public, formal public hearings, and event appearances).
  • In January, 2013, the PSTA Board of Directors made a request to the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners to put the sales tax referendum onto the November, 2014 ballot.
  • In August of 2013, the PSTA Board of Directors accepted the Greenlight Pinellas vision and overwhelmingly voted in favor of moving ahead with the plans. Since then, TBARTA, many local politicians, as well as various business and community leaders, have endorsed Greenlight.
  • In December, 2013, the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1, to place the Greenlight Pinellas voter referendum onto the November, 2014 ballot. Shortly after, the second phase of the Greenlight initiative, called YES for Greenlight, was launched.

The opposition…No Tax For Tracks Pinellas.

The No Tax For Tracks logo, with the words "Vote No Nov. 4". Credit: No Tax For Tracks Pinellas.
The No Tax For Tracks logo, with the words “Vote No Nov. 4”. Credit: No Tax For Tracks Pinellas.

Although Greenlight Pinellas has gained many supporters, including community and business leaders, one major hurdle stands in their way…No Tax For Tracks Pinellas. No Tax For Tracks Pinellas is a branch-off of a similar anti-tax group that was formed to fight against the failed Hillsborough County transit referendum. This group is largely comprised of Tea Party supporters who have been vehemently opposed to any transit expansion within Pinellas County.

No Tax For Tracks Pinellas claims that PSTA doesn’t need to be putting forth what the group claims is a massive tax hike to county residents, and feel that PSTA’s lack of efficient management is to blame for their financial problems. You’ve probably heard of the group’s spokesperson, Barbara Haselden, appearing at numerous events throughout Pinellas County. For those of you who haven’t heard yet, Barbara strongly believes that the window tint on transit buses is purposely used to hide empty buses. I believe that she doesn’t want to accept the fact that many transit bus windows are tinted for the sake of energy efficiency and comfort. Virtually all modern transit buses worldwide have window tinting.

No Tax For Tracks Pinellas spokesperson Barbara Haselden. Photo Credit: TBO.com/St. Petersburg Tribune.
No Tax For Tracks Pinellas spokesperson Barbara Haselden. Photo Credit: TBO.com/St. Petersburg Tribune.

No Tax For Tracks Pinellas (which I’ll refer to through the remainder of this post as NTFT) has been engaging in an extensive grassroots outreach effort to spread their message about why the Greenlight initiative is a bad choice for Pinellas residents. Recently, these efforts have gone beyond the classic “look at my yard sign” approach. The group showcased a sailboat advertisement with a red banner on one side of the sail saying “STOP THE TAX HIKE!” and the other side showing the Greenlight logo with a red “NO” symbol through it. The bottom of the latter side reads “Vote NO in November”.

Video Credit: Alta Smith.

WARNING: The song that is played in this video has explicit langauge.

A Greenlight supporter made the above video showing NTFT’s footage of their so-called “SS NoTaxForTracks” making the rounds off one of the Pinellas gulf beaches. There’s music tied into the video, which I thought was pretty darn appropriate to describe NTFT’s silly efforts to try and get people to vote against the Greenlight measure in November (the original video from NTFT can be found on YouTube also). Obviously, NTFT seems to be getting the “rave reviews” they want. Here’s a snippet from their Facebook Page, dated May 18.

At least 1,000 people on St Pete Beach saw the SS NoTaxForTracks on Sunday. Someone on the beach started chanting, “No Tax for Tracks!” And it caught fire and people on the beach and wading in the water were chanting in Unison….”No Tax for Tracks”! Crazy but True! Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched!

I have only two words for the folks at NTFTDream On

The challenges that lie ahead for Greenlight.

Three big challenges lie ahead for the Greenlight initiative. One: Putting together the Interlocal Agreement that would govern how the current property tax provision would be substituted for the proposed sales tax. Two: Continuing to educate Pinellas voters on how vital Greenlight is, while combating the efforts of NTFT. And Three: Combating allegations put forth by numerous Tea Party advocates that PSTA has been misusing public money to sway voters minds in favor for Greenlight. These allegations have caught the attention of Florida Senator Jeff Brandes, who has called for the Florida Department of Transportation to investigate PSTA.

If PSTA doesn’t do enough to address these challenges, voters may very well be inclined to vote against the Greenlight measure come November. One thing that concerns me is that PSTA won’t have detailed information about their Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plans until after November, should Greenlight pass. Although PSTA officials have told me that there’s no sense in moving ahead with heavy engineering studies, etc. unless they have the funds to do so, many voters who still have the Hillsborough defeat fresh in their minds will no doubt be demanding that PSTA do something before November.

Why No Tax For Tracks Pinellas is stumbling over their own feet.

For a while now, I’ve been quite irritated at the message that NTFT has been trying to spread to Pinellas voters. I strongly believe that a lot of what the group is saying about Greenlight is false. A Politifact Florida ruling struck down one such claim by NTFT, though NTFT and other staunch Greenlight opponents claim the ruling was flawed. However, the fortress walls of what I see as “Castle NoTaxForTracks” may be crumbling. At a recent forum at St. Petersburg College, Barbara Haselden basically mentioned that transit in Pinellas should be privatized. Here’s the snippet from the article that shows just that. Can I get a “Whoops!” in there?

Haselden believes public transportation should be bid out to the private sector if PSTA can’t “provide safe reliable service to 1.6 percent of our neighbors, for those who want a ride that doesn’t take all day to get to their destination.”

(Source)

Since this has come out into the limelight, transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay (Connect Tampa Bay on Facebook | @ConnectTB on Twitter) has been spreading the word to Pinellas voters about NTFT’s true intentions. Here’s a graphic from their website that shows the two sides…Greenlight vs NTFT.

A side-by-side comparison between what Greenlight Pinellas will bring to Pinellas County and what No Tax For Tracks Pinellas wants. Graphic credit: Connect Tampa Bay. Click on the image to go to their website (sources to the comparison information is listed there too).
A side-by-side comparison between what Greenlight Pinellas will bring to Pinellas County and what No Tax For Tracks Pinellas wants. Graphic credit: Connect Tampa Bay. Click on the image to go to their website (information sources are listed there too).

Why Privatizing PSTA is a BAD IDEA!

A full-blown privatization of the Pinellas bus system WILL NOT bring cost savings. In fact, it may bring forth safety issues, along with a lot of frustration amongst transit leaders, government officials, the chosen contractor, and transit riders and advocates. Let’s take a look at an ill-fated decision by Fairfield and Suisun Transit (aka FAST) in Fairfield, CA to outsource transit operations to a private contractor, MV Transportation. The contractor was fined 295 times (adding to a total of $164,000) during the period of two years due to various performance issues, including missing scheduled arrival times. There have also been various squabbles between transit leaders and the contractor. As of 2013, MV Transportation continues to contract with Fairfield and Suisun Transit.

Privatizing the Pinellas bus system will also likely cost many workers their jobs, and will provide for very few transport options because routes and services will be cut in the process, the latter has happened with the transit district in Nassau County, NY, where service was slashed after operations were outsourced to a French company. Concerned riders and transit advocates in that district even formed the Long Island Bus Riders Union to voice the need for affordable, equitable, and accessible mass transportation” in the area.

It all comes down to the vote!

YOU HAVE A CHOICE

Pinellas voters have an important choice to make in November. They will either vote for transit service expansion and improvements, or vote for transit service cuts and eventual privatization of the transit system.

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3 thoughts on “Greenlight Pinellas – Successes and Challenges”

  1. Thank you for your thorough analysis of our PSTA/Greenlight situation in Pinellas County.
    Do we have this correct:
    1. PSTA didn’t do so well because of the recession…….They sure spent a lot of money prior to the recession – have you seen the $40 million palace they built for their HQ in 2005?)
    2. The recession is over, employment is up, property taxes are getting back to normal (not above normal as they were pre-recession, which was a big contributor to the crash).
    3. Property taxes will never be enough because Pinellas needs a train. (I assume you do not live in Pinellas given that you are a HARTrider)…..
    You believe Pinellas should raise their sales tax to 8% so that PSTA can take $148 million/year from taxpayers instead of $34 million in property tax.
    4. PSTA should improve their bus system. …..Everyone in Pinellas County agrees with you on that point.
    The question is, why can’t they give us the $300 million bus expansion and see how things go – then ask for the $2.5 BILLION for a train?

    5. You like trains.
    6. You do not like No Tax For Tracks.

    7. You also believe that a private company should not manage a public transit system……No need to worry, that is not likely – the unions would force the politicians to never even think about that possibility.

    8. Vote YES on Greenlight and get “transit expansion;” vote NO and get “Privatization.”……..Actually, Greenlight is not a bus or a train. It is a referendum asking voters if they approve or disapprove of a law that will raise their sales tax to 8% (the highest in the state) so that PSTA would receive tax revenues of $148 million/year, growing to $200 million/year and going on forever. There is a lot of talk about buses and trains and transit option – but NOWHERE in that law does it say they will do this or that – we have to trust them.

    Please answer a few questions for us (these are not answered in the PSTA presentations or their website):

    1. How much will the “transit expansion” you mention cost taxpayers? Round numbers will be OK. Please cite your source.
    2. We now have less than 2% of the population using PSTA buses. How many will use buses after the $300 million expansion? Remember, the population of Pinellas County is not projected to grow through 2040.
    3. How much will the train cost? How many people are projected to ride the train when it is complete? Ten years after completion?
    4. How much additional sales tax will be paid in Pinellas County every year? (the additional 1% that grows 3% every year, forever)
    5. If the property tax is eliminated, will property owners pay more or less in sales tax than they paid for PSTA as a property tax assessment?
    6. If the referendum is passed, how much will non-property taxpayers then pay in sales tax that will go tp PSTA?

    Anyone voting should know the FACTS before they vote. Would you agree? Are YOU going to vote in Pinellas County in November?

    Here’s one you do not have to answer if you don’t feel comfortable with it:

    Haselden believes public transportation should be bid out to the private sector if PSTA can’t “provide safe reliable service to 1.6 percent of our neighbors, for those who want a ride that doesn’t take all day to get to their destination.”
    What do you believe should be done if PSTA (or any transit agency anywhere) cannot provide safe reliable service to 1.6% of the population who need a ride that does not take all day to get to their destination?
    It’s an opinion question – she has an opinion. Do you have an opinion?

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