Four Tampa Bay area mayors met with about 150 business leaders and residents Tuesday night for a meeting billed as a “discussion” of the Greenlight Pinellas transit plan.
It was not quite what some expected.
The Green Bench Conversation, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, had more of the feel of an hour-long infomercial than any substantive debate over the controversial initiative.
Yes, it may have been a glorified sales pitch, but what a pitch it was — made by some of the Tampa Bay’s best pitchmen.
On stage were four of the region’s leading administrators, all staunch advocates of the Greenlight Pinellas proposal, both in concept and execution — St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and Indian Rocks Beach Mayor R.B. Johnson. Chamber President and CEO Chris Steinocher acted as moderator.
The first sign that Green Bench would be more infomercial than informative was this: there would be no questions from the audience.
That caveat came much to the chagrin of the No Tax for Tracks group, led by neurosurgeon David McKalip, who joined a handful of protesters outside the event at the freeFall Theater on Central Avenue. In addition, No Tax banners dotted the approach to the parking lot.
Next came complaints from a vocal No Tax supporter, miffed that she was prevented from passing out anti-Greenlight pamphlets to the crowd.
That left little doubt that Tuesday night’s Green Bench Conversation was not to be a dialogue. Those expecting a spirited debate — like McKalip — would leave disappointed.
However, once the Greenlight Pinellas infomercial was underway, it was certainly inspiring. All four mayors gave their best pitches, a mix of personal anecdotes and visions of how Greenlight Pinellas is more than just a transportation initiative — more than just buses or light rail.
To them, Greenlight is nothing short than the first baby steps to a unified Tampa Bay, and represents the best chance for success of regional transit.
Buckhorn, arguably the area’s biggest cheerleader, quipped that he came to the St. Petersburg event because “No one here can vote against me.” His pitch was that people moving to Tampa want to live in an urban core with transportation options.
“We cannot build our way out of this” by paving more roads, he said. “You have to give them options.”
Although he admitted having no “skin in this game, directly,” as mayor of Tampa, Buckhorn recognizes that the bridges are not barriers, but connectors.
That became the overall theme of the night; Greenlight Pinellas, like it or not, represents a tremendous stride in joining diverse Tampa Bay neighborhoods into a united, world-class region.
In addition, a regional unity through transportation would draw a “brain trust” of younger residents who expect a walkable urban core. Greenlight, to the mayors, is the first step in the ability to join St. Petersburg and Tampa, as a way to remain competitive in attracting creative individuals and professionals.
Although almost everyone on stage was in agreement that Greenlight Pinellas might not be a perfect answer, especially to a minority of residents opposed to the additional one percent sales tax, but improving transit is a good starting point for future development.
With unified transit — including light rail — city leaders acknowledged Tampa Bay could better provide a “selling point” for drawing future generations to the region.
“We are much less likely to attract Millennials and young professionals without providing a robust transportation network,” Buckhorn said.
Another point was the impression Tampa Bay gives to international visitors, particularly those who are used to rail, buses and other mass transportation. Often, they arrive in Tampa only to be disappointed that no transit system exists to take them from Tampa International Airport to the beaches — Tampa Bay’s main tourist attraction.
That, among other things, could make the area less attractive.
“It should be easy to get to the beaches from the airport,” Johnson said. “Travelers, especially from Europe, expect to be able to get around.”
“Tampa’s on fire,” Buckhorn added, quoting Alicia Keyes. “We are done settling for second fiddle. Good things are happening, and people feel that the good days are ahead of us.”
Kriseman, calling on his time in the Florida House, reminded the audience that in promoting regional unity, “politics and parties don’t matter; you want to be able to get things done.”
“This city is alive,” he added, “in ways that it never was before.”
Although Tuesday’s Green Bench Conversation may not have ultimately swayed hard-line opponents like McKalip and No Tax for Tracks, the cohesive front of supporters did make the strongest case yet for Tampa Bay’s future, one that includes a modern, upgraded transit.
And like any good sales pitch, it gave the buyer hope. Whether that translates to victory in November remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, it was a good show.
Greenlight Pinellas is the countywide transit plan advocated by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which ask county voters in November to decide on a one-cent sales tax and replacing the current PSTA ad valorem property transit tax.
If approved, Greenlight Pinellas will increase the PSTA operating budget to $130 million, and enact expansion to bus service by nearly 65 percent. Changes include developing high-speed bus lanes and a grid system, which supporters say will improve bus wait times to no more than 15 minutes.
In addition to extending bus coverage areas and additional weekend service, construction would begin on a light rail corridor from St. Petersburg to Clearwater Beach.