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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Much riding on Pinellas transit plan

Expect to hear a lot in the coming months about the Greenlight Pinellas transportation plan to raise the tax dollars needed to vastly expand bus service and, eventually, build a light-rail line connecting St. Petersburg with Clearwater. It will be a critical decision for the region, determining whether Pinellas residents will commit to a diverse transportation network or continue to rely on cars.

With a near-unanimous decision a couple of months ago, Pinellas County commissioners agreed to put the plan before the voters on Nov. 4.

Now it’s up to the public to learn about the plan over the next 10 months. They can start by visiting greenlightpinellas.com, where the plan’s backers have prepared comprehensive maps and explanatory materials that clearly state what voters can expect if they approve the 30-year transit plan.

That’s a far cry from the confused effort voters were left to untangle in Hillsborough County in 2010, when a similar referendum to expand transit options failed because of strong opposition in unincorporated areas. This time around, the stakes are no less consequential, but the plan is far superior.

If approved, the property tax that generates $30 million for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would be replaced by a 1-cent increase in Pinellas’ 7-cents sales tax, generating $130 million annually.

The money would be used to increase bus service in the county by 65 percent. It would expand weekend service and provide a mix of local and regional routes offering far more choices for commuters, seniors, shoppers and tourists. The current hub system, where riders wait an hour or so for a bus to arrive at a few large terminals, would be replaced by a grid system allowing riders to transfer at regular bus stops. The frequency of buses arriving at stops along the core routes would be as short as 15 minutes. Express buses from St. Petersburg, Clearwater and north Pinellas would run to Tampa International Airport, Westshore, and downtown Tampa.

The inconvenience of bus service in the Tampa Bay area has meant only those without options ride the bus. The idea behind Greenlight is to provide the choices that will get commuters and others out of their cars. They can save money, ease congestion on the highways and help the environment.

The rail portion is sure to be attacked by those who view any rail proposal as a waste of tax dollars. But it represents the start of what needs to become a regional transit system connecting Hillsborough and Pinellas over the Howard Frankland Bridge, effectively linking the area’s major commercial and entertainment centers.

Work on the 24-mile link between Clearwater and St. Petersburg wouldn’t begin until after bus service is expanded. It would cost $1.6 billion to build, using state and federal grant money along with local dollars. Once operational, in about 10 years, it would represent less than a third of the PSTA’s operational costs, far less than the operational costs associated with running the buses.

The Greenlight campaign is being watched in Tampa, where talk of putting another transit referendum before voters next year is becoming more serious. Already, the thoughtful and deliberate approach led by Brad Miller, PSTA’s chief executive officer, has offered valuable lessons. Miller has sought broad public input, gathered political backers, and presented a realistic plan that is easy to understand and reaches into every corner of the county.

No county in Florida is more densely populated than Pinellas, which is nearly built out. Another 200,000 people are expected to move into the county over the next 25 years, a 20 percent increase. In many respects, this is the most logical place to begin expanding transit options in the Tampa Bay area, though Hillsborough shouldn’t be far behind.

Many of the younger arrivals to our region are choosing to live in urban settings, where they can minimize the need to crank up the car. And many older residents are coming to see the value of having transportation options beyond a car.

We think an evolving marketplace will ultimately turn away from our current overwhelming dependence on cars. It is just a matter of when. We encourage Pinellas voters to get educated about the plan. Their decision on Greenlight should be illuminating for the rest of the state, particularly Hillsborough.

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