After a three-hour bout with Pinellas and Hillsborough citizens in a packed room, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials unanimously voted to push a one-cent sales tax increase for the County Commission to put on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot — an effort that would ultimately revolutionize local public transit.
The one-cent tax increase would initiate funding for a light rail system that would extend from Clearwater to St. Petersburg, and is estimated to cost between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion to build.
From sixty-something-year-old men making racial slurs about officials to college-aged students fighting for a way to bring their hometown up to speed with the rest of the country, more than 100 people filled out requests for three minutes to speak to officials and the full house in an effort to sway their vote. A very vocal 60 people ended up speaking.
Just before the meeting was called to order, 64-year-old Lon Phillips discussed with his fellow citizens how Councilman Wengay Newton is "a baby gorilla, part of a system that was serving itself and stealing from the peasants."
"High fructose corn syrup. Babies are fat, and they get high fructose corn syrup. He's got no neck because of that," Phillips said as he pulled a blue padlock out of his pocket and continued twisting it for the duration of the meeting.
Between auctioneer-style pleas either in strong opposition or strong support, and the hecklers yelling from the seats at the most opportune moments, the buzzwords of the day were "multimodal" and "light rail." Many in attendance also made sure to impose their thoughts on changes that could be made on the crowded Hart bus lines in lieu of a light rail.
The Sierra Club was one of many organizations with a strong presence at the meeting and quite a few members signed up to vocally support the raised tax to build a light rail.
"We have less freedom than anywhere else in America. We have fewer choices," said regional representative of the Sierra Club, Phil Compton.
While attendees brought up the issue to highlight the quality of life aspect of not having a light rail, the opposition argued that money already allocated for public transportation is not being put to proper use.
"Don't scratch your head wondering why we don't have any money for infrastructure when we threw it all away on these bicycle projects and all these other useless things," said Joe Paige, a citizen in attendance. "Also, the folks who say 'oh I came from New York' or 'I came from Chicago' well then move back there. If you don't like it here, then move back there. Don't come here and try to change what we have. We like it just fine."
There is no word yet on when officials will begin discussion about the topic.