Mitch Perry has a story in Creative Loafing this morning about the opposition growing in response to a proposal to create a 24-mile light-rail system linking the central part of downtown St. Petersburg with Clearwater — which voters would weigh in on via a possible sales tax referendum next year to pay for the system.
Before I discuss this matter any further, let me say that I am unabashed urban liberal. I understand and believe in the power of mass transit.
That said, I am increasingly opposed to bringing light-rail to Pinellas County. Simply put, IT WILL NEVER WORK. No one, not one single person I know WOULD EVER drive to a light rail stop in central St. Petersburg to take a train to downtown Clearwater, where they will be without their car.
This will never, ever, ever happen. Folks in Pinellas are as likely to put their hand in an electric outlet as they would be to use light rail. And I say that as someone who lived in New York City and utilized mass transit everyday.
Nor are there major employment centers which require transporting large numbers of workers to and fro. There ares no factories in Clearwater or St. Petersburg. There are no town centers. Pinellas County is a condensed, but evenly-developed community. Light rail simply will not work here.
So, the developing push for light rail in Pinellas is being increasingly billed as an economic development issue. Build the rail line to create jobs, proponents say. You could also use taxpayer money to pay people to build sandcastles and that would be considered economic development. Except more people would go to see the sandcastles than they would take a train to somewhere through Largo.
Yet, the push is being made. My friend City Councilman Jeff Danner can talk your ear off about why Pinellas needs light rail. The Tampa Bay Times editorial board has made it clear it would be behind the project.
And so the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority signed a $300,000 contract with Tampa-based public relations firm Tucker Hall for public transportation “educational messaging and branding.” Let’s be clear, the contract is not to advocate for light rail, but don’t think for one second that isn’t the ultimate goal.
The contract with Tucker Hall reminds me of that great scene from the movie “Dave” when Kevin Kline’s presidential character quizzes members of his cabinet about the millions of dollars the federal government spends on questionable projects. He begins by asking the Secretary of Commerce about an advertising campaign to ” ‘boost consumer confidence in the American auto industry.’ “
“Does it make the cars any better?” Dave asks.
“No sir, it’s more of a perceptual issue,” the Secretary responds. “It’s designed to bolster individual confidence in a previous domestic automotive purchase.”
“So we’re spending $47 million to make people feel better about a car they’ve already bought?”
In other words, PSTA is spending $300,000 to make people feel better about buses they’ve already bought.
That, or its a backdoor-effort to promote a light rail system which will never work.