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.
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.
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.
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 (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 NTFT…Dream 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.”
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.
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!
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.