Today’s post goes more in depth as to why the Greenlight Pinellas referendum failed so horribly on Tuesday, as well as to what’s next for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, and the Tampa Bay region as a whole.
And a portion of St. Pete at that. With the exception of two small areas in Central Pinellas, only the quadrant of St. Pete that surrounds downtown, Midtown, and the southeastern peninsula region. There was also one area of southern St. Pete that generally voted against Greenlight. The Greenlight campaign knew that gaining the support of northern Pinellas, which includes Clearwater, would be difficult, but at the end of the day, the efforts did not go far enough.
In areas along the planned light rail corridor, such as Largo and Pinellas Park, many voters just could not say YES to Greenlight. A map released by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office showed just how bad the initiative fared throughout the county, and that has thrown many within the Greenlight campaign, and referendum supporters, off their feet.
Despite the Greenlight campaign informing voters about the plan’s “tax swap”, which would replace the existing property tax with a one percent sales tax, it seems that many voters just weren’t understanding the concept. In fact, I’m sure many voters in Pinellas were provided with the mindset of double taxation coming to the county because it wasn’t clear to them that the property tax would be eliminated. There were lots of concerns, including the Interlocal Agreement, as to just how the property tax would eventually disappear.
Even though the Greenlight campaign spent many hours going door to door, talking with residents about the Greenlight plan, the efforts simply did not go far enough, thus many voters were missed. This gave No Tax For Tracks the chance to spread tons of misinformation and deception about Greenlight to more of the populace. The Greenlight campaign also started their outreach efforts much later than NTFT, and by the time the Friends of Greenlight outreach campaign began, NTFT had already gained the upper hand on many portions of the county.
Like in the failed 2010 Hillsborough transit referendum, the message that NTFT sent to Pinellas voters was that Greenlight was all about costly and inefficient light rail. NTFT Campaign Manager and spokesperson Barbara Haselden mentioned, while being interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times, that the downfall of Greenlight was basically a “mandate” against light rail in the county. The question is though…is light rail truly a non-starter in Pinellas? Or even Tampa Bay as a whole? That answer will take many months to analyze, and even then, we may not have a full picture of just how the Tampa Bay region feels towards light rail.
Something not mentioned in the Tampa Bay Times articles that I’ve linked…the state of the economy here in Florida, and throughout the nation, likely had a huge hand in Greenlight’s defeat. Although the economy in general has improved since the 2008/09 recession, the truth is, the recovery hasn’t been as widespread and as robust as many had hoped. Like the Great Depression of 1929 through the 30s, economic recovery took not just years, it took decades for the world to recover from it. The most recent recession will likely take at least a couple of decades before significant economic recovery can really be felt.
With that said, because the economy hasn’t recovered all that much, especially here in Florida, the anti-tax sentiment still remains. Some that I spoke with thought back in 2012 that passing a sales tax referendum in Pinellas in 2014 would stand a greater chance at passing compared to the Hillsborough 2010 referendum, mainly because the economy would have improved a good amount by 2014. However, we now know that this hasn’t been the case, and many voters at the end of the day, just didn’t want to have to deal with another tax when they get taxed enough as it is. Even if light rail is or isn’t a non-starter for Pinellas, Hillsborough, or any of our Bay Area counties, the bottom line is, many voters did not want to tax themselves any higher when the economy is still largely in limbo.
For the short term, PSTA officials have mentioned that bus service cuts are inevitable, but how those cuts will be executed remain to be seen. Some possible reductions on the table include cutting out under-performing routes, or decreasing frequency on busier routes. Neither possibility is something that customers want to see, nor PSTA staff. Beyond the initial cuts though comes a cloud of uncertainty over the long term. Will PSTA have to look to partnerships like MetroBee to provide supplemental services? That’s something in my last post that HART is exploring right now. Will PSTA have to look towards Bus Rapid Transit, specifically the HART MetroRapid model, to spur support for eventual passenger rail? Or will PSTA have to start exploring with Pinellas and Hillsborough leaders, as well as HART to construct a cross-bay commuter rail line like SunRail? All these sound like very good possibilities, but it’s just too early to tell what the longer term plans will be without any new revenue options.
Even more uncertainty surrounds both Hillsborough’s possible 2016 referendum push, and the future of the Howard Frankland Bridge. Hillsborough leaders will be meeting soon to discuss their next steps in the 2016 plan. However, that same meeting could wind up being an announcement that these leaders will no longer pursue a referendum until 2018, 2020, longer, or maybe not at all anymore. If that happens, which I personally will be shocked if some sort of announcement of that nature isn’t made in the next few weeks, then that would severely impact any future transit guideway implementation into the planned northbound Howard Frankland Bridge replacement.
If neither county can put forth a viable transit plan that includes bus improvements and rail, that the public will support in large, then the Florida Department of Transportation will likely wind up moving ahead with plans for a span that only encompasses a mix of General Use Lanes and (possibly reversible) Tolled Express Lanes. After all, the Express Lanes are going to be built regardless of where transit goes from here. It’s in the larger Tampa Bay Express Lanes project, which I’ll discuss in a later post. But building the new bridge with no meaningful transit accommodations (other than letting HART and PSTA buses use the Express Lanes) will be disastrous for the entire region, because we’d have to wait at least an additional 10 years (that’s around 2035 folks) for the eastbound Gandy bridge replacement. And , there’s no guarantee that bridge would accommodate rail either, because the South Tampa community would likely be heavily opposed to it (get a hint from the failed Gandy Connector project).
For now, expect more of the same, being stuck in traffic. For the next five to ten years at least, expect Tolled Express Lanes to be built with a vengeance. And if things really go south, our region can expect to wait another 50 years before meaningful public transit can finally arrive.