Don Ewing, co-chair of Yes for Greenlight, talks about the benefits of improved transportation in Pinellas that would be possible by approval of a 1 percent transit sales tax during an April 3 forum in the Digitorium on the Seminole campus of St. Petersburg College.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Barbara Haselden, campaign manager and spokesperson for No Tax for Tracks, tells the audience why a 1 percent transit sales tax is not needed in Pinellas County during an April 3 forum sponsored by St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions.
SEMINOLE – On Nov. 4, registered voters throughout Pinellas will go to the polls to decide on a change in funding for local transportation.
Supporters say the additional funding from a 1 percent sales tax compared to the amount available through ad valorem taxes is necessary to improve transportation to provide sustainable economic growth into the future. Opponents say the current funding method would be sufficient with better use of the money.
On April 3, the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College, based on the Seminole campus, hosted a two-hour public forum - Dealing with Gridlock: Is There a Light Rail in Pinellas County's Future? Representatives from both sides were invited to present their case.
SPC Seminole Provost James Olliver moderated the event inside the college’s Digitorium. Don Ewing, co-chair of Yes for Greenlight, provided information in support of the Greenlight Pinellas initiative. Barbara Haselden, campaign manager and spokesperson for No Tax for Tracks, presented information for the opposition.
SPC plans to use the forum process to cover all the referendums on the November ballot to provide the public an objective and nonpartisan view, Olliver said. A test of the forum’s ability to help the public make up its mind was used for the first time ever that Thursday night when instant polling via cellphone texting was introduced to the audience.
“This is probably the first time you’ve been in an auditorium and you have been told to keep the cell phone on,” said David Klement, executive director of the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions.
Klement said the instant poll, used as a “straw poll,” should provide an indication of what participants think about an issue before and after the presentations.
Before the presentations, 24 people indicated support for Greenlight Pinellas, 11 were against and five were undecided. After, 30 people were in favor, 21 against and only two undecided.
In support of Greenlight
Each speaker was given 15 minutes to make his or her case. Ewing went first. He took the audience back to the mid-1960s when Disney began its plans to build the City of Tomorrow in Orlando. The goal was to create a pedestrian-friendly and car-free environment.
He said while Greenlight Pinellas wasn’t intended to turn the county into a Disneyworld, the plan did include the idea of providing walkable communities with improved transit and reduced use of vehicles. Projections show, without change, Pinellas’ future is one of more congestion on local roads and longer commute times. Ewing said continual widening of existing roads is getting more difficult due to lack of space and safety concerns.
“That can’t be our only approach,” he said.
He advocates Greenlight Pinellas with plans for improved bus service and a future light rail system, running for Clearwater to St. Petersburg with the potential for a connection to Tampa and points beyond to provide regional connectivity.
Supporters of Greenlight say it is more than just light rail. They say that better transportation system will create jobs and encourage economic development, enhance quality of life, as well as support the environment.
Adding nighttime hours to the bus schedule will allow workers on the late shift to use public transit to get home - something they can’t do now. Students taking classes at SPC’s different campuses will find it easier to use the bus system with decreased wait times of 15 minutes at stops. Tourists will be able to get from the airport to the beach using public transportation.
“It’s a real life look at what enhanced bus service and rail can do,” he said.
Ewing said the plan – “40 years in the making” - was well vetted and had been analyzed by two third party experts – Ernst and Young, financial auditors, and HTNB, a national engineering and transportation consulting firm.
He explained the different routes that make up a variety of proposed enhanced bus services, running throughout the county. Light rail doesn’t appear for 10 years, he said; however, the route is already mapped out. The majority of rail lines are on public land, meaning fewer problems with right of way.
Once the Greenlight Pinellas plan is complete, 80 percent of the population will live within ¼ mile of a bus rapid transit station and 86 percent will work within ¼ mile of a station, he said.
Greenlight Pinellas plan relies on an increased level of funding that would come from a 1 percent sales tax as opposed to collection of ad valorem taxes. Ewing said for some, taxes would go down. For example, a taxpayer of an owner-occupied home with a median value of $161,600 would pay $81.52 less with a sales tax, per estimates from IRS studies.
He pointed out that the sales tax would not be levied on groceries or medical items and would be limited to the first $5,000 of any purchase. He said a person could buy a car for $20,000 and not pay more than $50 in transit tax. He added that tourists were expected to pay about 1/3 of the tax money generated.
He said if the tax were approved, an oversight committee of citizens would monitor how the money is spent, as would County Commissioners. He said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority – the receiver of the proposed transit tax money – was fiscally responsible, receiving consistently clean audits of its finances.
He urged the public to vote yes for Greenlight.
Haselden then presented the case against Greenlight. She pointed out that it cost a family of four about $100 a day to go to Disney. She said if they stayed at a hotel there, ate at the restaurants and paid other expenses, the cost would be $4,500 to $5,000 – an amount not affordable for everyone.
“Disney was an entrepreneur and a private business,” she said.
She told the audience that public transportation was stagnant. She showed a chart that showed 50 percent of the U.S. used public transportation post World War II. Since then, the number has dropped to 2 percent. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 1.6 percent use public transportation in Pinellas. Her source was Heritage Foundation: Public Transit: A Bad Product at a Bad Price.
She showed a photo of a new PSTA bus that she said cost $650,000. Currently there are 200 in the PSTA fleet, she said, with plans for more. She argued that PSTA doesn’t pay for itself, and said about 75 percent of its operations were subsidized.
About 22 percent of PSTA’s $63 million operating budget comes from federal or state grants, another 22 percent from passenger fares and about 53 percent from ad valorem taxes. The capital budget includes another $28 million. Haselden said her numbers come from PSTA.
She said it costs about $7 a ride with riders paying an average of 91 cents, meaning in total PSTA is subsidized by 87 percent. She showed a chart of the county’s property values and pointed to the decrease after 2007 when the recession hit.
She said the amount of money PSTA collected dropped from $38 million to $26 million due to the decline in property values. She said a check of past years’ budgets shows the agency spending money in 2002 and continuing to spend until 2007 when it began to slow down. Budget cuts followed including staff layoffs. Then, the agency raised its millage rate, and spending increased again, including hiring of staff, Haselden said.
“They outspend their income,” she said.
She talked about a statement made by PSTA CEO Brad Miller, who said if no new sustainable funding source is found, PSTA would have to cut 30 percent in 2016.
“PSTA is at a crossroads,” she said.
She talked about the negative aspects of light rail, including the difference between high-speed and light rail, which causes congestion at intersections.
She is opposed to increasing the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent. PSTA currently receives $32 million from ad valorem taxes and would receive $148 million from a 1 percent sales tax, she said.
She objects to Greenlight supporters calling it a tax swap. She said unless it was revenue neutral it was no swap. She said if an additional 1 percent sales tax was approved, Pinellas would have the highest in the state,” which cannot be good for business.”
She said with more potential revenue, PSTA could increase its credit limit and debt to the taxpayer. She talked about “false premises” and claims by Greenlight that there would be more than 200,000 new people in Pinellas by 2040.
“That’s not true,” she said. “The population is not growing.”
She disputed claims of record ridership being touted almost every month by PSTA. She said the numbers are inflated by how they count rides. She gave an example of a single trip with multiple bus transfers. She said each time a passenger boards a bus, it is counted as a ride, so a single person taking the bus to the mall could be counted as six rides.
“The (ridership) numbers haven’t changed in eight years,” she said.
She talked about empty buses and buses running with only two to three people. She said PSTA paid $700,000 for a study that showed the top five routes were so busy they were almost dangerous and other routes not performing.
She said the entire Greenlight Plan was “just a promise.”
“There is no guarantee in writing,” she said.
She said people don’t want to give up roadway lanes to dedicated use by light rail or buses. She showed a chart of costs and fares for several metro areas using light rail, pointing out that none of them came close to breaking even.
“In Pinellas, there’s just no need,” she said.
U.S. 19 is almost finished. I-275 corridor is going to connect to U.S. 19. The roadway will have no stoplights, she said.
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.”
She pointed out that PSTA would continue to receive grant money and fare money on top of the projected increase from the sales tax – a considerable increase in overall funding.
Questions and answers
The presenters also fielded questions from the audience. One led to a lengthy discussion on population density.
“The biggest problem is that we don’t have the density needed (for rail),” Haselden said. “You go from a low density area to another low density area.”
She compared Pinellas County’s population to that of New York City, which has enough people to support enhanced systems. She also said light rail wasn’t needed to stimulate the economy, she said it could be done using Bus Rapid Transit.
Ewing disputed the statement that the proposed light rail route connects two low-density areas, stating that Pinellas County has the highest density of any county in the state. He said the rail line would travel between the county’s two most dense areas, traveling through Pinellas Park and Largo on its way.
“Over time, this will force people to live around rail lines and in high rises increasing density … narrowing our territory,” Haselden said. “We’re used to a large territory.”
Another question led to a discussion on economic development. Ewing said the 16 rail stations would be located away from current developed areas onto land not currently developed, which would be good for the local economy. Haselden said the Federal Transit Administration described development around rail lines as redistributed growth, not new growth. She gave the example of the effect malls had on downtown areas in the recent past.
“This will drive people to shop near rail lines,” she said.
One man, who identified himself as a veteran, asked if the steel for the tracks, trains and other components would come from America or overseas. Brad Miller, PSTA CEO, said federal law requires it all to be made in America.
Ewing answered another’s concern by saying Greenlight Pinellas would provide options and alternatives.
“Some would use (public transportation) every day and some on occasion,” he said.
He gave an example of a trip to the airport, thus saving money on parking.
“It’s about getting people off the roads to not have to expand the roads,” he said. “We can only expand the roads a certain amount. We’re running out of land. We need to educate people that they can do something else.”
Haselden said it was more important to work on the roads.
“Ninety-eight percent of us use the roads,” she said.
SPC will take on the topic of medical marijuana, another referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot, in an upcoming Village Square presentation on Thursday, April 17. A dinner and discussion will be presented from 6 to 8:15 p.m., in the Seminole campus Conference Center. Advanced registration required at https://www.spcollege.edu/survey/15463.