On no longer being opposed to Greenlight Pinellas

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For the better part of two years, I have struggled with what to think about the Greenlight Pinellas campaign and plan to expand mass transit in this county.

I have spent countless hours listening to all sides of the debate, including advocates of the plan like Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority executive director Brad Miller and County Commissioner Ken Welch, as well as  philosophical opponents of Greenlight Pinellas like my friend, state Senator Jeff Brandes. 

I arranged for Greenlight Pinellas supporters to speak to the Suncoast Tiger Bay organization, but I’ve also written extensively about some of the practical problems related to Greenlight’s implementation.

There are ads ads for Greenlight Pinellas on SaintPetersBlog, but there are also ads on the site for Brandes and other opponents of the plan. There are also ads from the public relations firm Tucker Hall, which went from being the lead consultant to the plan to jilted partner.

In other words, I’ve been on both sides of the tracks on this issue. I can’t remember being more evenly divided about a public policy issue than this one.

That’s because, at my core, I do not believe Floridians will embrace mass transit. Some will, but not enough to justify the enormous costs to build a system like GP. And I’m saying that as someone who for two years utilized mass transit while living in New York.

It’s simply too hot outside for the average Floridian to wait outside for a bus or a train. Those who do so most likely do so because they have to, not because they want to.

I know my rationale for opposing mass transit is simple-minded, but that’s only because I don’t want to get into a longer argument about the wonders of mass transit. There’s as much data that shows that it works and will work as there is that it doesn’t and won’t.

What undecided voters like myself are left with then is whether we want to take a leap of faith.

Because that is what is required for someone to vote for Greenlight Pinellas. You have to believe that it is going to work … that enough of our co-workers and neighbors and fellow citizens will eventually embrace using mass transit to get from one place to the next.

The opponents of Greenlight Pinellas will tell you that Greenlight Pinellas cannot succeed by good works alone. It will raise taxes too high, they say. The money it generates will be administered by bureaucrats governed by little accountability, they argue.

They’re probably not wrong.

As much as I have disagree in the past with Dr. David McKalip, one of the two or three most prominent opponents to Greenlight Pinellas, I must admit that he has been especially insightful and persuasive with his arguments about why Pinellas voters should not pass the Greenlight Pinellas initiative.

Unfortunately for McKalip, while he may be right with some specific complaints, there  are larger issues at play. This is not just another government program. This is not some sort of pilot project.

For Pinellas County, this is the mother of all government programs. This is the project which will dominate the public debate for the next two or three decades. This is a game-changer.

And, right now, Pinellas County needs a game-changer.

That’s why I will be voting ‘Yes’ on the Greenlight Pinellas initiative. Not because I believe in the power of light rail. Not because light rail is entirely affordable. But because this is Pinellas County’s last, best chance to be something more than the country’s most populous bedroom community, as the Tampa Bay Times‘ John Romano recently described it.

Pinellas is a peninsula on a peninsula. In other places of the world — east Long Island, San Francisco — this geography is destiny and has helped make these regions prosperous. But that’s not the case in Pinellas, where too much of the area is marked by ill-planned communities, congestion, trailer parks and sprawl.

That the Pinellas beaches are one of the most vacationed spots in the country and the City of St. Petersburg was last year named by the New York Times as one of the fifty must-visit places on the planet is a testament to what the entire county could become.

But only if Pinellas hits the reset button.

Greenlight Pinellas is that reset button.

Critics of Greenlight Pinellas argue that the plan will raise taxes that will eventually make its way into the pockets of developers and land-use lawyers. That’s demagoguery. What Greenlight Pinellas does do is generate enough revenue for this community to reimagine much of inner Pinellas.

In fact, one cannot look at Greenlight Pinellas as expanded bus service and a light rail line from Clearwater to Pinellas. It is actually to rail lines. Clearwater to Gateway. And Gateway to St. Petersburg. This is how former St. Pete City Councilman Jeff Danner, now working for the Greenlight Pinellas campaign, slices the Gordian Knot of convincing people that they will use light rail.

Danner has me convinced that, while I will rarely, if ever, use mass transit to go from St. Pete to Clearwater, I would use it to go the Carillon, to Gateway, to middle Pinellas and back. One day, I might even use it to go Tampa’s airport and mall.

Like I said, it’s a leap of faith.

Leaps such as this are easier to make when you are holding hands with many of your friends and those you trust. Making a leap of faith for Greenlight Pinellas are so many of the community’s otherwise moderate, sensible elected officials, not just its progressive voices. So much of the business community is supporting Greenlight Pinellas. Even the Tampa Bay Rays, which eschews politics like Joe Maddon’s players avoid stealing bases, is backing Greenlight Pinellas.

Even otherwise conservative Republicans are beginning to say they will vote in favor of Greenlight Pinellas because, well, what other choice do they have? The Greenlight Pinellas movement has mounted an impressive education and political campaign, while its opponents strain to raise money or attract volunteers.

All of that means something to me. My mind is made up.

To arrive at the destiny Pinellas’ geography deserves, I will be voting ‘Yes’ on Greenlight Pinellas.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.