Epilogue: Rail was not the death of Greenlight Pinellas

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The autopsy for Greenlight Pinellas has already begun and isn’t likely to be done anytime soon. The latest evaluation tool centers around exit polls conducted among voters who cast a ballot in the November 4 election asking them various questions about the transit referendum.

The Tampa Bay Partnership commissioned Frederick Polls to survey voters within two days after the election on key factors that motivated support or opposition for the one-penny sales tax ask that would have funded sweeping improvements to public transportation in the county.

“Though the defeat of Greenlight Pinellas was disappointing for those of us who have worked tirelessly to pass a comprehensive plan for transportation in Tampa Bay, the Tampa Bay Partnership is committed to continuing forward with this process and finding a way to connect our region with a robust transportation system.,” Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Stuart Rogel wrote in an email.

The poll was commissioned after the referendum failed 62 percent to 38 percent. According to the Tampa Bay Partnership gaining a better understanding of why Pinellas residents supported or opposed Greenlight is critical to forging a path forward in developing any future referendums or other options for raising funds for improved transportation in Tampa Bay. That includes any future transit initiative in Pinellas, but also will be key in determining how to move forward with a transit measure in Hillsborough County.

One of the key detractors for Greenlight Pinellas seemed to have been its inclusion of a 24-mile light rail line that would have connected downtown St. Pete to Clearwater. The opposition group, while lobbying against the sales tax increase, was called “No Tax for Tracks” and repeatedly referred to the plan as a rail “boondoggle.” One opponent even composed a song, “I’ve been working on the greed line” in protest.

However, no other factor came even close to why naysayers voted no than the sales tax increase. In fact, when asked about the referendum without a rail component and only including a half-penny sales tax increase, 38 percent of no-voters wouldn’t have changed their minds.

The biggest take-away from the survey of 400 voters is that the sales tax funding structure is wildly unpopular.

“To overcome this innate skepticism, voters must see very clearly how the plan will benefit them directly – they must see the value of a tax increase in a compelling, tangible way,” the survey summary points out.

No-voters also indicated they were skeptical of the tax swap portion of the referendum. Supporters and those working on the Greenlight campaign repeatedly pushed this to earn support from homeowners. Had Greenlight been approved the portion of property taxes currently used for public transportation would have been cancelled. Two things likely led to this skepticism and were driven by the No Tax for Tracks opposition group. They argued the property tax cancellation couldn’t be trusted even though the county commission approved an agreement in June to get rid of it should Greenlight pass. No Tax for Tracks wasn’t entirely off base because, technically, the property tax needs approval from the state legislature to be deleted. Commissioners merely agreed to set the millage rate to zero.

The other argument was that the tax swap wasn’t really a tax swap because it would have increased revenue for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority from about $30 million a year to $130 million a year. The ballot language for Greenlight Pinellas, at the behest of county attorneys, also made no mention of a tax swap.

Another hiccup Greenlight supporters initially identified was voter education. The campaign worked long and hard to reach as many voters as possible arguing that if voters saw a value in the tax, they wouldn’t oppose it. This survey turned that theory on its head. About 80 percent of voters polled said they had been contacted in some way by the Greenlight Pinellas campaign. What’s more, many of those voters indicated they had favorable opinions of elected officials who endorsed the plan like St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman and several county commissioners.

The findings led to several key take-aways. Surveyors found that any future transit ballot initiatives must reach voters on a much more personal level. This rings true when considering the consolidation of yes-votes to mostly downtown and South St. Pete. North County voters typically felt that the plan did not provide a benefit to them. The findings also note that, while the campaign did a great job of reaching community leaders, elected officials and businesses, there needed to be a broader effort to change the mindset throughout the community.

Other take-aways include looking at other possible funding options that may be more palatable to voters and continuing to include robust, multi-modal components because, contrary to preconceived notions, that was not a driving factor in voters rejecting the referendum.

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.