Moving into the future 

Will Pinellas pave the way for better mass transit in Tampa Bay?

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However, one thing that Dooley had working for her — a benefit not enjoyed by No Tax For Tracks — is bipartisan support. In Georgia both the NAACP and the Sierra Club worked with Tea Party activists, because those relatively progressive groups had their own objections to the plan.

But that strategy won’t unfold in Pinellas. The Sierra Club has been instrumental in organizing groups to attend PSTA meetings and show visible support for the initiative over the past year. “We’ve been the primary source of grassroots support, and we intend to do even more this year,” says the Club’s Phil Compton.

The Sierra Club campaign, Florida Healthy Air, considers the lack of clean, modern transportation options the community’s biggest economic and environmental problem.

“We work with the Chamber of Commerce, who support transit options for business reasons,” says Compton, “but we’re also motivated by the fact that our cars’ tailpipe emissions are our biggest source of carbon emissions as well as a major factor in Hillsborough having Florida’s worst smog.”

Although St. Pete NAACP head Reverend Manuel Sykes wasn’t available for comment, his organization also backs the measure.

When asked about this, Barbara Haselden, the leader of No Tax for Tracks, admitted that she hasn’t attempted to reach out to the NAACP. She says she did make an entreaty to Compton, but was rejected for reasons she’s still uncertain about. “It makes you wonder if it’s all political instead,” she wonders.

Haselden is a founding member of the South Pinellas 9/12 group, and has been a constant at County Commission and PSTA meetings over the past couple of years, part of the Tea Party-led insurgence that compelled a majority of County Commissioners to support a proposal to eliminate fluoride from the county’s water supply. But that move provoked a fierce backlash, resulting in Democrats Charlie Justice and Janet Long — two strong proponents of Greenlight Pinellas, incidentally — to defeat Republican challengers who supported fluoride removal in 2012. Now Norm Roche remains the only standard-bearer for the cause on the Board.

Another critic of the transit plan, neurosurgeon and political activist Dr. David McKalip, recently paid St. Pete Polls to survey voters about the plan and found 60 percent rejected it after they learned that it would increase the sales tax by a penny. However, his questions never mentioned that the tax would provide for a 65 percent increase in overall bus service in Pinellas, and calls for added bus rapid transit lanes (BRT), increased frequency and extended hours. But McKalip objects when told that his poll was skewed.

“The advocates, when they ask questions, they never say the train is only from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, that’s misleading,” he says. “They talk about using public funds in the polls, but they don’t talk about a sales tax hike. They talk about using a 1-penny increase in the hike when it’s really $130 million. The entire modus operandi of Greenlight Pinellas is to deceive the voters. That’s the only way that they can come close to winning.”

Regarding his claim that advocates are boasting that the train will ultimately provide service from Pinellas to Hillsborough, McKalip is referring to the official draft map of the plan, which shows dotted black lines crossing Pinellas to the Marion Transfer station in Tampa.

A connection across the bay by rail is definitely not in the current plan, but could be a future step. In October, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said the state is committed to building an estimated $25 million substructure to accommodate light rail on the replacement span of the Howard Frankland bridge.

Barbara Haselden from No Tax for Tracks says that the government should only do what is needed, not what it wants to do, citing a U.S. Census report that says that only 1.6 percent of the public in Pinellas relied on public transportation in 2010, with the average commute 23 minutes. “Other cities may have a need they’re trying to resolve, but we really don’t have a problem.”

Meanwhile, as Pinellas becomes fully engaged on advancing transportation choices for the future, transit advocates in Hillsborough County say they’re tired of biding their time.

Three and a half years after their penny-cent transit tax went down to defeat, the Hillsborough County leadership policy group is making noises about putting up its own sales tax measure, perhaps in just a little over a year.

“Otherwise we’re waiting until November of 2016, and that’s just to take action,” says Hillsborough County Commission chair Mark Sharpe. “That’s six years after it lost in 2010, and if someone’s going to tell me with a straight face that waiting around six years makes good business sense, then they don’t know business. We can’t sit back while other regions move forward on transit,” he adds, alluding to the Pinellas campaign. Others say that such talk is absurdly early.

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