ST. PETERSBURG — The woman leading the fight against light-rail coming to Pinellas County rode, of all things, a train during a visit to Naples, Italy, last year.
After boarding, Barbara Haselden was hoisting her bag into an overhead luggage rack when she felt a tug and turned to catch a woman trying to steal a wad of euros from her handbag.
Without hesitating, she floored the thief with a forearm smash.
A local tea party stalwart, Haselden, 61, is likely to be just as fierce an opponent for backers of Greenlight Pinellas, the plan to expand bus service and build a 24-mile light-rail network from Clearwater to St. Petersburg.
Local politicians and chambers of commerce have lined up in support of the plan, which would be paid for by a penny sales-tax hike. They will likely be joined by Realtors, developers and other companies that are expected to ante up as much as $1 million into a campaign to persuade residents to vote “Yes” in a referendum on Nov. 4.
In the way of that political steamroller stand Haselden and No Tax for Tracks, a group of tea partiers, anti-tax activists and other transit skeptics who have been cast as spoilers in the campaign. Formed as a political committee last month, No Tax for Tracks will launch its campaign Tuesday evening in Largo.
Polls indicate strong support for Greenlight, and No Tax for Tracks knows it likely will be hugely outgunned when it comes to donations. But the group is taking heart from the Hillsborough County group of the same name that, with a campaign war chest of only $24,000, defeated a 2010 transit referendum backed by business and civic leaders to the tune of $1.6 million.
“We’re going to work ourselves ragged this year,” Haselden said. “We’re on the right side of the issue; we’re on the people’s side.”
The referendum will decide the future of mass transit in Pinellas for years to come.
If approved, roughly $30 million in property taxes that subsidize PSTA operations will be replaced by a penny sales tax, boosting the agency’s annual funding by roughly $100 million.
That would pay for a 30-year plan to drastically expand bus services, adding more routes and running more buses to encourage passengers to leave their cars at home. Bus Rapid Transit — road lanes dedicated for bus travel only — would be developed on some of the county’s key transit corridors. Development would also begin on a proposed 24-mile light-rail network from Clearwater to St. Petersburg that will cost an estimated $1.6 billion.
Backers say transit expansion is the next step in the economic development of the county, with light-rail stations and bus routes encouraging mixed-use development of condos, apartments and offices they say will attract more young professionals and others who do not want to rely on a car.
If voters reject the expansion, PSTA would continue to be funded by property taxes. PSTA leaders say they would have to slash existing bus services by roughly 30 percent, as the agency has been tapping reserves.
As No Tax for Tracks campaign manager and spokeswoman, Haselden is likely to be the face of opposition to Greenlight five years after she first became interested in politics.
The owner of an insurance agency providing coverage for long-term care of the elderly, she became involved with politics after watching aghast at the bailing out of banks, the spending of billions of dollars on stimulus programs and the election of President Barack Obama.
Her response was to co-found South Pinellas 912 Patriots, an offshoot of the tea party movement that sees fiscal conservatism and limited government as a patriotic defense of the Constitution.
For her, the Greenlight plan is akin to another bailout, using tax dollars to rescue what she sees as an underperforming agency, in this case the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Haselden’s deep distrust of government is obvious. She suspects bus windows are tinted so residents will not be able to see how few people are onboard. She describes leaders of the agency and the county as “power-hungry people who will not prune this system.”
“That same kind of mentality that is wrecking our country in Washington, we can do something about here,” she said. “Only government thinks the answer to empty buses is more empty buses and an empty train.”
PSTA officials point out that out-of-service buses travel 130,000 miles each month to the start and from the end of routes. Window tinting is for the comfort of passengers and to lower the use of air-conditioning on the bus, which increases fuel economy.
As for arguments that a government-owned bus network should serve low-population communities so that elderly, disabled or others who cannot drive or afford a car have access to transportation, Haselden says she doesn’t buy into that “guilt trip.”
“If you need to ride the bus, you live near the bus stop,” she said. “People will take care of their own problems.”
The daughter of a truck driver and a stay-at-home mom, Haselden’s belief in thriftiness and business values came from her upbringing in central Indiana.
“We weren’t rich, but we always seemed to have enough because they were hard workers,” she said.
She describes her fight against transit expansion as patriotic, as putting country first.
Asked if those who support transit expansion aren’t also patriotic, she pauses for a long moment before conceding they may be. The concession still comes with a caveat.
“I spend a lot of time doing this for nothing and they’re being paid,” she said.
Since PSTA first began exploring light-rail and bus expansion, Haselden has attended more than 100 meetings. Once it became clear that the Greenlight plan would be put to voters, she began making presentations against it to Kiwanis groups, Rotary clubs and neighborhood associations.
John Burgess, a member of No Tax for Tracks who has known Haselden for about four years, said she has let some of her business slip away because she is so focused on the referendum.
“I’ve never seen anything like it; she’s spent so much time going to these meetings,” Burgess said. “A lot of people misunderstand anyone like that who gets so involved. They are passionate people who are misunderstood as being radical.”
But supporters of Greenlight say that No Tax for Tracks is spreading misinformation, an approach they say will turn off the public to their message.
“She’s passionate about her position, but I don’t believe it’s accurate,” said Jeff Danner, a former St. Petersburg City Council and PSTA board member who is expected to take a position advising Realtors and developers backing Greenlight. “Stuff like that just doesn’t work.”
Haselden said she is prepared for a campaign she knows will consume most of this year. Her group has a cadre of speakers who will visit community groups. They have launched a Facebook page and a website, and raised $17,000 in donations.
She stressed that No Tax for Tracks is not a tea party group, but that it wants to protect Pinellas County from potential bankruptcy and to shield taxpayers from government.
“We’ve got to be hanging onto our billfolds like I did on that train in Naples,” she said. “They’re pickpockets.”
The No Tax For Tracks campaign launch is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Abundant Life Ministries,1550 Belcher Road S. in Largo. For information, call (727) 374-7883.