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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Joe Brown Columns

Light rail plan needs to be regional

It started as a casual conversation in a bar but morphed into a public-policy discussion. The guy I was talking to lives in Tampa but works in Pinellas. He complained about how the booming tourism this spring made his daily commute miserable, adding an extra 15 to 20 minutes onto his drive home.

He’s originally from the Northeast and grew up around public transportation. He also travels a lot and has used buses and light rail in many cities. So, I asked him, does he support Greenlight Pinellas, the upcoming referendum that seeks to replace the 3/4 mill property tax with a 1 percent sales tax to expand bus service and build a light rail system.

Even though he can’t vote on it, the answer was no. If Greenlight Pinellas passes, it would raise the local sales tax to 8 percent, which would be the highest in Florida. It would affect him directly because he eats lunch in the county every workday, in addition to other purchases while on the job. Most important, it’s not going to get him out of his car.

He also believes, as I do, that any light rail system has to be regional to make it worthwhile. “Any rail project in the Tampa Bay area has to start at the airport,” he said. He bases this on personal experiences in cities like Atlanta, where on a recent business trip he took a train from the airport to his downtown hotel.

I’ve done the same thing from airports in Chicago, Oakland, Washington and Newark. In every instance it was convenient, fast and inexpensive, but I have a hard time figuring out how it would work from Tampa International Airport.

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The light-rail system Greenlight Pinellas proposes is limited, to say the least. It would travel from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater, with a few stops in between. That sounds like a railed version of the Suncoast Trolley, which travels up and down Gulf Boulevard from St. Pete Beach to Clearwater. It would also leave out areas like South St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor, which kind of makes a mockery of the term “mass transit.”

In his State of the City address in March, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called for a referendum to support expanded bus service and light rail in the city. He also encouraged Tampa residents to support Greenlight Pinellas even though they can’t vote on it. He would like to see a referendum on his side of the Bay no later than 2016.

A 2010 referendum similar to Greenlight Pinellas, Move Hillsborough Forward, was rejected soundly, 58 percent to 42 percent. Maybe Buckhorn supports Greenlight because he believes passing a ballot initiative in Pinellas will build momentum for one in Tampa. Like the guy in the bar, however, I believe the thinking on public transportation has to be regional.

One good example is the recent announcement by the Pinellas County Suncoast Transit Authority to set up a park-and-ride lot in downtown St. Petersburg that would allow commuters to take express buses directly to Tampa. Routes eventually could connect with a planned transit center in the West Shore area from which riders could transfer to a bus going to TIA or other areas. It’s inexpensive and won’t depend on what Pinellas voters decide in November.

There’s no telling how many drivers will take advantage of this, but they at least will have an option. In the end, that’s all public transportation can provide, no matter how much planning goes into it.

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