This morning, we are waking up to some sad news in several Florida counties. And no, it’s not just the Governor’s race, for those of you who voted against our current governor. As many will know; Pinellas, Polk, Alachua, and Hernando Counties all had placed sales tax referendums on their respective ballots. Although these referendums were different in scope, all of them would have created better communities by improving aging infrastructure and/or by improving public transit systems.
As many will also know, back in 2010, Hillsborough County attempted to pass its own sales tax referendum, geared at improving and expanding public transit within the county. That measure failed by 58/42% margin. In the wake of that defeat, both Pinellas and Polk counties placed their respective sales tax referendums on the November 4, 2014 ballot in hopes that they would not suffer the same fate as Hillsborough. Unfortunately, neither referendum, along with Alachua and Hernando, passed. In fact, Hernando’s margin was similar to that to Hillsborough’s, and the other three counties fared even worse.
How badly did the referendums fare?
Here’s how each county’s referendum fared, along with a brief summary of what each referendum would have entailed:
- Pinellas County – Greenlight Pinellas – Transit Improvements/Expansion
- NO: 62%, YES: 38%
- Polk County – My Ride/My Roads – Transit Improvements/Expansion, Roadway Improvements
- NO: 72%, YES: 28%
- Alachua County – Moving Alachua County Forward – Roadway Improvements
- NO: 60%, YES: 39%
- Hernando County – Roadway Improvements, Education Improvements, other major infrastructure improvements
- NO: 56%, YES: 44%
Now, I have not talked previously about the referendums in Polk, Alachua, and Hernando Counties, but I am aware that unlike Pinellas, the referendums in Polk and Alachua did not gain widespread support. In Polk’s case in fact, many companies including Publix Super Markets were heavily opposed to the My Ride/My Roads measure, fearing that their business would be negatively impacted by the sales tax. However, in the referendums in Pinellas, Poik, and Alachua all shared one thing in common, and that was the level of heated exchanges between those who supported their respective referendums, and those who opposed them. This level of divisiveness was often shown on social media, as well as through newspapers.
What happened in Pinellas?
Although it’s hard to say what exactly drove voters to go against Greenlight Pinellas, I strongly believe that the following factors played a significant role in the measure’s demise.
- Lessons NOT learned from Hillsborough: The Greenlight campaign asserted that the plan was not following the same mistakes as the failed 2010 Hillsborough referendum. However, the one key mistake that was made, was that the Greenlight campaign did not emphasize the bus improvement/expansion component enough. Clearly voters aren’t too keen on putting their money towards light rail alone, and the Greenlight campaign (along with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, or PSTA) should have done a lot more to inform voters about the various bus service improvements that the Greenlight plan entailed. Because of this, the opposition was able to successfully hammer the light rail component of the plan while completely dismissing the bus components.
- Tea Party Interests: Tea Party-backed opposition group No Tax For Tracks Pinellas (NTFT), an offshoot of the original Hillsborough County group, was able to gain momentum early in the Greenlight campaign and build up tons of name recognition. Back in 2010, No Tax For Tracks was not widely known, whereas now…they’re a household name. This momentum was able to keep NTFT strong, even as the Friends of Greenlight PAC campaign outraised the group in funds, and garnered tons of community and business support for Greenlight. It is to note that these same Tea Party interests, are opposed to Obamacare and the President’s many other policies.
- Department of Homeland Security Grant to PSTA: This I strongly believe was the “nail in the coffin” for the Greenlight campaign. A few years ago, PSTA was granted funds from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to inform the public about how the agency is looking out for them when it comes to curtailing terror threats. However, it was revealed that the ads were seen as pitching the Greenlight plan, instead of fulfilling the grant’s intent. PSTA leadership was slammed by NTFT and other opponents for misusing federal taxpayer dollars to market the Greenlight plan. Even though PSTA ended up returning the fund to DHS, the damage was already done. Public trust of PSTA was eroded by the scandal, and I suspect that many voters became so disenfranchised by the developments, that they just could not vote YES on Greenlight.
- NOTE: I strongly believe that PSTA’s actions in regards to the DHS grant was NOT INTENTIONAL, despite local news reports on the matter. I believe that DHS failed to provide PSTA with proper guidance on how to use the grant, and earlier news stories indicated that the agency never responded to PSTA’s requests for clarification.
What happens next for Pinellas? Hillsborough?
Obviously, it’s back to the drawing board. But this will likely not be the last time that a sales tax referendum for transportation is brought up. It might be a while, and it may take several more attempts before something gains enough public support to pass. Cities like Phoenix have had to deal with failure several times before being able to pass a local referendum that garnered enough public support. If it takes Pinellas and Hillsborough FIVE TIMES to pass a suitable referendum, then so be it.
For now, PSTA must find ways to remain viable with the resources it has, or its “doomsday” scenario of a 30% service cut may come to reality, and that’s something that no one wants to see happen. If I could suggest one thing to PSTA leadership, it would be to look to HART. Although HART’s MetroRapid system could be doing a bit better right now (I previously mentioned about the unresolved bus stop conflict) I think that PSTA should consider building a starter BRT “lite” line down US 19 that is modeled off MetroRapid. The line can run concurrently with the existing Local Route 19, but only serve key stops along the corridor. HART is also looking to form a partnership with MetroBee to shave some stress off its system during nights. I think that PSTA should consider such partnerships as well.
As far as the bigger transit picture, all eyes are now going back to Hillsborough as they gear up for a possible 2016 referendum. However, a huge “what if” stands in the way amid this crushing defeat; “what if” Hillsborough leaders suddenly decide to back out of this attempt, fearing that the same results would come about? There’s no doubt that the opposition will be calling on Hillsborough commissioners to abandon this run, even though they’ve achieved quite a bit so far. The reality is though, commissioners are still as wary as they were a few months ago. About the only thing keeping the Hillsborough process moving is the efforts of transit activists like Connect Tampa Bay. Honestly, if it weren’t for CTB, Hillsborough leaders would indeed be abandoning all efforts for another referendum push until at least 2020. Still though, we have to see if this abandonment will still occur regardless of CTB’s hard work.
In my next post, I will be going through in further detail as far as what’s next for PSTA and Pinellas County, as well as Hillsborough County. I’ll also keep everyone informed as to what Hillsborough decides to do next, as the failure of Greenlight continues to sink in on Pinellas voters.
Until next time, take care!