Monday, June 18, 2012

Pinellas transit agency moving forward on possible rail initiative

Posted By on Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Transit advocates flooded the PSTA meeting
  • Transit advocates flooded the PSTA meeting
There has been a lot of criticism among Pinellas County Tea Party members about the penny sales tax referendum for a light rail initiative that could come before county voters in the next year or two.

That's why there was an effort made by pro-rail advocates to attend in large numbers at Monday afternoon's PSTA (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority) workshop that discussed the possible initiative, to show that there is in fact public support for the possibility.

However, it was only a workshop, meaning no public comment was solicited. That left the 80-100 people in the audience to endure a lengthy presentation by PSTA's CEO and Executive Director Brad Miller, a lecture that began with him discussing the basic fundamentals of transportation funding in America, such as the fact that most sectors of it rely on public subsidies. That was a rebuke to the comment that such a rail system "doesn't pay for itself," a familiar argument that conservatives used in Hillsborough County for that referendum in 2010 that lost by 19 percentage points.

PSTA's board voted in January to recommend a 24-mile light-rail system linking the central part of downtown St. Petersburg with Clearwater at a cost of around $1.7 billion. Pinellas commissioners aren't expected to vote until early next year about putting the issue on the ballot in either the fall of 2013 or 2014.

Like its brethren across the bay, PSTA has had to cut its level of service (by 6 percent) and raise bus fares to cope with reduction of revenue due to the continuing economic slowdown.

Miller said flatly, "There has been a lot of talk that PSTA is broke or insolvent. That is false. PSTA is doing fine, though we do have our challenges."

The idea that the transit agency is doing "just fine" was challenged, initially by County Commissioner and PSTA member Norm Roche, who posed several critical questions to Miller during his presentation. But Commissioner Ken Welch, a rail advocate, also said that it might be a stretch to say that the agency is doing "just fine."

"We're fine for the moment, but we're not at an acceptable service level," Welch said, with Miller agreeing.

The proposed rail line would include 16 different stations along the way, beginning in Clearwater and including stops in Largo, the Gateway area, Pinellas Park and then ultimately ending in St. Pete.

Among the issues that have raised the ire of Tea Party groups is the fact that PSTA is paying the Tampa-based public relations firm Tucker/Hall $300,000 for what has been described as "educational messaging and branding" on a possible rail system. Critics say it's more like propaganda.

The room was packed with transit supporters, many of whom rode on PSTA buses from downtown St. Pete to get to the transit agency's headquarters near Pinellas Park. The Sierra Club and Awake Pinellas coordinated an effort, and CL also saw members from the Occupy movement, the Downtown Tampa Partnership, and other noted activists in attendance.

The Sierra Club's Phil Compton noted that the meeting took place during national Dump the Pump week (the actual day is this Thursday), which is a movement that encourages people to use public transportation to help the environment.

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