Pinellas County won’t be getting light rail anytime soon. It also won’t be moving into the next phase of increasing bus service and implementing bus rapid transit. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority won’t be getting an extra $100 million in annual funding to do all those things.
Greenlight Pinellas is dead; beaten to a bloody pulp by an under-funded group of powerful grassroots masterminds by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.
But that doesn’t mean the conversation about the future of public transportation is over in Pinellas County. A brutal death at the ballot box wasn’t what Greenlight supporters wanted. They didn’t even see it coming. But their goals are unwavering and their voices will not be silenced.
“You have to not just to look back, but really look at what we can take out of this going forward,” said Tampa Bay Partnership president and CEO Stuart Rogel.
The one-penny sales tax increase PSTA was asking for through the Greenlight Pinellas plan wouldn’t have just funded sweeping improvements and additions to the agency’s services; it would have saved it from painful cuts to core parts of the system relied on everyday by the transportation-challenged.
Without increased funding PSTA will burn through its reserves and become insolvent by 2017. That daunting prospect leaves the transit agency with limited options on how to live within its budget. They could cut less popular routes, but that would cripple ancillary services people use to get from a main route to jobs that aren’t always on major thoroughfares. They could reduce bus frequency, but that would increase the likelihood of public transportation-reliant users being late to work or forced to leave far earlier than should be necessary.
They could look at increasing the current property tax-derived funding base. PSTA currently brings in .7305 mils. They could increase that to .75, but that would only add a couple hundred thousand dollars to the budget. They could expand their tax base to the handful of municipalities like St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island to squeeze just a little more out of property taxes, but it still wouldn’t be enough.
Officials within PSTA know they have to do something. Supporters of Greenlight Pinellas who are licking their wounds after a devastating loss know they have to do something. The million dollar question, or 100 million dollar question if you compare apples to apples, is what?
“In the next couple days or weeks we will take stock of what happened and what we can learn about why we were not successful,” Rogel said.
On the surface there are a lot of obvious answers. First and foremost, people don’t like tax increases; especially not sales tax increases. Sales tax referendums for transportation-related improvements in Polk and Martin counties also failed (though the Martin county vote is so close there will be two recounts.) In 2010, Hillsborough County asked for a sales tax increase. That measure met the same doom as Greenlight Pinellas. It leads leaders to believe sales tax may not be the way to move forward, at least not now.
“There was some support [among critics] for a half-penny tax,” PSTA board chair Ken Welch said. “Or we could look into Penny for Pinellas.”
Either of those options would leave out light rail.
“You have this bright dividing line where mid-county and north-county voted against it,” Welch said. “The rail piece of it for north-county was a non-starter.
Rogel, from the Tampa Bay Partnernship, broke down the counties vote. It was no surprise that north-county overwhelmingly opposed Greenlight Pinellas. Reporters, supporters and PSTA officials called that from the get-go. What may have been at least a little surprising considering the huge margin Greenlight lost by, was where the measure was supported.
St. Pete was in favor of it. Voters in downtown and South St. Pete likely drove that support where they tend to either be progressive-leaning voters or consistent transit users.
“Another option, I’m not sure if it works, but we ought to look at, should we let municipalities take this on,” Rogel said.
PSTA board members will begin immediately discussing how to move forward with future plans and how to stay afloat in the meantime without gutting the bus system. To do that though, they need to understand what happened in the first place.
Usually when a campaign raises more than $1 million against an opposition group with less than $100,000, it’s not brain surgery to predict the outcome. That was obviously not the issue with a referendum that took three years to get on the ballot, more if you ask some former county officials who remember discussions going back more than a decade.
The ballot language for the Greenlight Pinellas referendum made the sales tax so obvious to voters it could have been destined for defeat no matter what the campaign did.
The title pointed to sales tax.
“Levy of Countywide One-Percent Sales Surtax to Fund Greenlight Pinellas Plan for Public Transit.”
The description pointed to sales tax.
“Summary: Shall the improvement, construction, operation, maintenance and financing of public transit benefitting Pinellas County, including an expanded bus system with bus rapid transit, increased frequency and extended hours, local passenger rail and regional connections be funded by levying a one percent sales surtax from January 1, 2016 until repealed, with the proceeds deposited in a dedicated trust fund?”
The truncated question at the end, again, pointed to sales tax.
“Yes, for the 1 percent sales surtax,” or “No, for the 1 percent sales tax.”
With that many in-your-face references to an increased sales tax, it’s no wonder the measure died an agonizing death. But Welch explains, the language had to be carefully vetted through attorneys and written in a way that didn’t confuse voters.
“It was coming off the heals of the St. Pete pier ‘yes’ or ‘no’ referendum,” Welch said referencing a legal battle that ended in thousands of petitions being disregarded because ballot language was found to be contrary to what the city charter required. Ultimately a ballot question was approved, but Greenlight didn’t have the time to mess around with hiccups.
Still, one has to wonder if one fewer reference to the sales tax would have made the difference.