Email insights: No Tax for Tracks sets sights on Hillsborough County transit tax ask

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The group Connect Tampa Bay and its executive director Kevin Thurman worked tirelessly to pass the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum that failed on the ballot last week. The defeat is bitter, but in an email, Thurman vows to move forward.

“While [the] hard work didn’t mean victory last Tuesday, our work together will be why we win Hillsborough in 2016,” Thurman wrote in a lengthy email Wednesday morning.

He’s talking about shaky plans in Hillsborough County to place a referendum on the 2016 ballot to further transportation initiatives in that county. Despite numerous conversations on the County Commission, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation agency and a fairly newly policy group comprised of representatives from Hillsborough and its cities, an exact plan – or even a semblance of one – isn’t yet known. The groups are waiting to hear from voters and the community about what they want and need in a transit plan.

All that is clear is that officials plan to put something on the ballot in 2016 and Thurman is going to throw his weigh behind whatever that is.

“The status quo would mean a future of being less competitive than places like Houston, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, and other cities throughout the world,” Thurman continued.

The Greenlight Pinellas referendum asked voters to approve a one-penny sales tax increase to fund sweeping public transportation improvements like bus rapid transit, increased bus service and a light rail line connecting St. Pete to Clearwater. It would have replace the current property tax funding structure and increased revenue for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority from $30 million a year to $130 million. A similar referendum in Hillsborough County in 2010 failed.

Transit buffs argued the Hillsborough referendum four years ago died because there weren’t enough details. In learning from that mistake, officials in Pinellas worked to ensure they had all of there I’s dotted and T’s crossed before putting a measure before voters. Now that Greenlight suffered a devastating 62 percent to 38 percent loss, the new line is that the passenger rail provision was too salty for voters. But a public transportation referendum in Polk County also got shot down by voters this election by an even wider margin and it didn’t contain rail.

“There are a lot of people that are going to make claims about why the referendums in Pinellas and Polk lost, but here’s what we know: If more people knew about the benefits of the plan, it could have passed. That means we need more person-to-person conversations,” Thurman wrote.

He adds in his email that though Hillsborough transit supporters suffered a defeat in 2010, the loss led to some positive moves.

“ Voters elected leaders that decided to move in a new direction. They are forging a new plan and are still on track to go back to Hillsborough County voters in 2016. Voters did the same throughout Tampa Bay — electing almost every Greenlight and My Ride supporters on the ballot.”

Thurman claims studies showing a majority of Hillsborough voters supporting paying for transportation. But opposition is already mounting against plans in Hillsborough that aren’t even drawn.

In an email sent to voters yesterday by anti-rail activist Sharon Calvert she asks them to fill out a form to send a stern message to officials in Hillsborough County.

“Let your Hillsborough County elected officials know that it’s still “NO” on having an 8% sales tax in Hillsborough County,” Calvert wrote. “Please tell them that you do not appreciate them wasting tax dollars to vote on the same issue again and again. Regardless of their party affiliation, they seem to need to hear it in both ears…twice!”

Calvert led the successful effort to derail Hillsborough County’s 2010 referendum. However, in September, she donated $25 to the Greenlight Pinellas campaign. Seems odd, right? According to Thurman, Calvert wrote that check in order to attend a woman’s event to videotape it. Another source close to the issue speculates some No Tax for Tracks supporters donate to campaigns and file public records requests at transit agencies in order to obtain email lists to blast with anti-tax sentiments.

Regardless, the Pinellas group headed by Barbara Haseldon seems to have passed the torch to Hillsborough tax opponents in an early effort to squash whatever comes down the pipe to better fund HART.

What’s most ironic is that in Calvert’s email she makes mention of an 8 percent sales tax. While that was the ask in Pinellas County and a one-penny increase to 8 percent in Hillsborough has been discussed, there are no concrete plans on how to raise revenue for transportation improvements.

And Thurman also points out in his email that the same people who are so vocal in opposing a transit tax are pushing for a $2.8 billion toll road through rural Eastern Hillsborough County.

“This is the choice we face — if we don’t stand up, then some will try and pave over the amazing place we live in will win out over plans that would create economic opportunity across the county through transportation options,” Thurman concludes in his email.

 Thurman is organizing a happy hour discussion at 6:30 p.m. November 19 at Holy Hog in Downtown Tampa to talk about how to move Hillsborough forward despite early opposition.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.