The increase in public transportation proposed by the Greenlight Pinellas plan would focus on expanded night and weekend service, as well as more frequent routes.
TARPON SPRINGS – In November, residents will vote on, among other issues, the fate of public transportation in Pinellas County.
The Greenlight Pinellas plan, to be voted on during a referendum on Nov. 4, would be funded by a 1 percent sales tax, replacing the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s cut of the property tax currently paid by Pinellas homeowners; the county’s sales tax will increase from its current rate of 7 percent to 8 percent. If it passes, the plan calls for more frequent bus routes, longer hours and a 24-mile light rail from Clearwater from St. Petersburg to be opened by 2024.
While public transportation routes will still be focused primarily in south Pinellas County, the northern part of the county, including Tarpon Springs, are included in the plan.
Currently, four options exist for Tarpon Springs residents to travel north using PSTA buses: the Coastal Jolley Trolley, the North County Connector (the Dunedin/Palm Harbor route picks up and drops off at the Tarpon Campus of St. Petersburg College and the East Lake route has a stop at Tarpon Mall at the corner of Tarpon Avenue and Huey Avenue), Bus Route 19 stops at Tarpon Mall and Bus Route 66 picks up at Tarpon Mall and the corner of Pinellas Avenue and Dodecanese Boulevard.
On the current system, four trolley routes run every 15 to 30 minutes from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, every 30 to 60 minutes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and every 30 to 60 minutes from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays. Three connector routes run every 60 minutes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.
Greenlight Pinellas has devised three different scenarios for the plan, including specifics for travel to and from Tarpon Springs.
• Optimal scenario (the ultimate goal for PSTA transit service to meet Pinellas County’s current and future needs): five trolley routes every 10 to 30 minutes from 5 a.m. to midnight on weekdays, every 10 to 30 minutes from 6 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays and every 10 to 30 minutes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays. Three connector routes would run every 30 minutes during peak weekday hours and every 60 minutes during off-peak weekday hours from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., every 60 minutes from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays and every 60 minutes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays.
• New revenue scenario (a system that would offer the benefits of the optimal scenario while fitting the budget set by the proposed sales tax): five trolley routes every 15 to 30 minutes from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, every 15 to 30 minutes from 6 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays and every 15 to 30 minutes from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays. Three connector routes would run every 30 minutes during peak weekday hours and every 60 minutes during off-peak weekday hours from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., every 60 minutes from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays and every 60 minutes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays.
• Core no new revenue scenario (an increase in public transportation that maintains the frequent local networks of the new revenue scenario without additional funding if the referendum fails in November): four trolley routes every 15 to 30 minutes from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, every 30 to 60 minutes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and every 30 to 60 minutes from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays. Three connector routes would run every 60 minutes during the week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with no weekend service.
On May 20, Brad Miller, the CEO of PSTA, presented the Greenlight Pinellas proposal to the Tarpon Springs City Commission, specifically geared to how the plan will aid Tarpon residents and businesses.
Miller began his presentation by recalling the first budget approval plan he went through as CEO. In the summer of 2011, former Tarpon Springs Vice Mayor Chris Alahouzos, serving on the PSTA Board of Directors, voted against the budget because the plan didn’t provide sufficient service for Tarpon.
“I understand that and I perhaps agree. There’s not enough public transit services to Tarpon Springs under our current funding program,” Miller said. “I’m confident, under the Greenlight Pinellas plan, that will change.”
An increased transit system, Miller said, would attract high-paying jobs and new industries to Pinellas County, especially since recent college graduates are more likely to move to or back to an area with public transportation.
“Our youngest generation of people is choosing to live based on where they have transportation options,” Miller said. “Although this Greenlight Pinellas initiative will bring a lot more buses and trains to Pinellas County, this has very little to do with buses and trains. It’s about our community and providing our community with an alternative method of growing and building its transportation system, not necessarily for us, but for our kids.”
Miller also pointed out that the plan would spread the tax base out to include tourists instead of relying wholly on Pinellas County homeowners; the public transit plan would be paid for by 8 percent of every bathing suit, bottle of sunscreen and pair of sunglasses purchased by out-of-town visitors. According to the Pinellas County website, about one-third of the sales tax revenue would be paid by tourists visiting Pinellas County.
Individually, Miller said that the increased sales tax would save money for the average Tarpon Springs family, although slightly. Under the annual property tax, about $112 in taxes from the median home in Tarpon Springs (priced at $204,000) goes to PSTA. If the Greenlight Pinellas plan passes and instead is funded through a one-percent increase in sales tax, Miller cited Internal Revenue Service statistics that estimated that a four-person family in Tarpon Springs spends an average of $110 in sales tax. In the simplest terms, Tarpon Springs families would be spending $2 less a year for drastically increased public transportation.
Citywide, Tarpon Springs spends $25,000 annually to directly fund PSTA, a cost that would be eliminated if the referendum passes, thus freeing up the money in the city budget.
Mayor David Archie thanked Miller for bringing the proposal before the commission, especially focusing the presentation for Tarpon Springs.
“Greenlight will be better for (Tarpon Springs residents) as well as other parts of the county,” he said.
Commissioner David Banther said he isn’t convinced the plan will persuade people to use public transportation, but he wants to ensure that people who need public transportation have the ability to find it.
“I would like to see more trolley service,” he said, “because I have seen how that does help restaurants here in Tarpon Springs.”
Commissioner Rea Sieber commended PSTA for bringing Pinellas County public transportation into the 21st century.
“I see students who don’t have transportation, or seniors,” she said. “We need more increased service to bring tourists and for our citizens to ride.”
Vice Mayor Jeff Larson compared the plan to an education system. Even if a resident has no intention of using public transportation, helping to fund the plan is mutually beneficial for the entire county.
If approved, the Greenlight Pinellas plan will take until 2024 to fully implement, beginning immediately with a restructured network, Safety Harbor Jolley Trolley service and Saturday service on the 100X Regional Express. The sales tax is expected to start on Jan. 1, 2016, followed by a phased introduction of bus network improvements, increases in service span and frequency across the county and introduction of rapid bus service to key transit corridors (Central Avenue, 49th Street and East Bay Drive, Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, Fourth Street and Ulmerton Road, U.S. 19 and Seminole Boulevard) through 2021.
In fiscal year 2016, the system would expand night/weekend services and increase service without the immediate need for fleet expansion. In fiscal year 2017, PSTA would purchase standard and coach buses to facilitate increased frequencies. In fiscal year 2018, frequent local routes and trolleys would begin increases in midday frequencies and the new regional express service would begin. In fiscal year 2019, supporting local routes and the North County Connector would increase local midday frequencies and the new circulator and seasonal trolley services would begin. By fiscal year 2021, all planned bus service expansions would be fully operational.
The final aspect of Greenlight Pinellas, the 24-mile light rail from Clearwater from St. Petersburg, would begin construction in 2021 and would open in 2024.
Pinellas County residents will go to the polls to vote on the Greenlight Pinellas plan on Nov. 4.
The opposition group, No Tax For Tracks, will likely present their views to the Commission at the City Commission meeting at 6:30 p.m. on July 1. Meetings are open to the public and are hosted at City Hall, 324 E Pine St. The Commission will then decide whether or not to support the Greenlight plan at the July 15 meeting.