ST. PETERSBURG — A new poll on the Greenlight Pinellas campaign to build a light-rail system and put more buses on the road has sparked controversy about whether the survey misled residents.
Commissioned by former St. Petersburg City Council candidate and local neurosurgeon David McKalip, a fierce opponent of the transit plan, the survey found that 45 percent of residents opposed raising sales tax to pay for a “commuter train from St. Petersburg to Clearwater.”
That number rose to 60 percent after respondents were told the extra penny sales tax would give Pinellas County the highest sales tax rate in Florida.
But transit supporters say the questions written by McKalip were designed to skew the results. The survey fails to mention that the new sales tax will replace a special property tax that funds Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority operations, they said. It also focuses on the more controversial rail component of the plan and omits that roughly half of the money raised through the new tax is earmarked for a 65 percent expansion of the county’s threadbare bus network.
“The polling results based on those questions is not a surprise,” said Ken Welch, a county commissioner and chair of the PSTA’s governing board. “Our focus will be to give voters the full package of information about what Greenlight Pinellas is about.”
Still, transit opponents hailed the results as proof that residents do not support the Greenlight plan and disputed that the questions skewed the results.
“It shows that people don’t want their taxes hiked to build transit or to grow a government bureaucracy,” said McKalip, who is a contributor and supporter of No Tax for Tracks, a group opposing the Greenlight plan. “When people are informed this will be the highest sales tax in the state, they don’t want to support Greenlight Pinellas.”
More than 2,000 residents across the county who voted in both 2010 and 2012 took the telephone survey that was conducted by StPetePolls. The margin of error was 2.1 percent.
A previous survey by the same group in April showed roughly half of voters thought the county needed a light-rail system, but respondents deadlocked on whether they would pay more taxes for it. Other polls have shown stronger support for the Greenlight plan.
StPetePolls owner Matt Florell said the results were likely a combination of residents learning more about the plan and the wording of the survey.
“The questions are very different from ones we’ve asked,” he said. “We’ve only asked ones where we try to be more neutral.”
A vote on Greenlight is scheduled for Nov. 4. Voters will likely be bombarded with mailers and advertisements in the preceding months.
A consortium of Realtors and development firms is expected to raise up to $1 million to persuade residents to back the plan. Opposition is being led by No Tax for Tracks.