Former St. Petersburg Councilman Jeff Danner and Gulfport’s Ward One Councilman Dan Liedtke debated the Greenlight Pinellas Plan Tuesday, September 23, at the Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg. The League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area (LWVSPA) hosted the event, which was open to members and guests only.
The one-percent sales tax increase referendum will take place November 4 and decide whether Greenlight Pinellas will be implemented. An affirmative vote will raise the sales tax from 7 to 8 percent and fund the plan.
The Greenlight Pinellas was proposed by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) to modify the transportation system in Pinellas County. It is a revenue plan, the main aspects of which include the elimination of the PSTA property tax on new property sales, improved and speedier bus service with increased hours and routes, and a future light rail connecting St. Petersburg and Clearwater downtowns.
Danner, arguing in support of Greenlight Pinellas, opened with the words “the best voter is an informed voter,” and said PSTA is ready to implement the plan “immediately.”
Among the improvements to the bus system, Danner mentioned the 80-percent increase in weekend transit, with a 65-percent increase in overall bus service, and a 24-mile light rail with 16 stations. His reasons to vote “Yes” on the November ballot include decreased congestion on the roads, connecting workers with employment and students with schools and benefiting the area’s development by attracting business and tourism.
“When you increase service, ridership increases. When it’s convenient, you use it,” Danner said, arguing the plan will help eliminate automobile costs.
Danner said PSTA feels that one-percent sales tax increase is a “fair way” to pay for transit and a way to spread the costs fairly on all. If the referendum fails, he said, the PSTA will cut services by 30 percent to maintain the current quality of its operations.
“You do get to vote,” Danner said, which is “a good thing.”
Liedtke, arguing against Greenlight Pinellas, said that congestion relief is no guarantee, with 41 railroad crossings halting automobile traffic. He stated that the turning center lanes will be eliminated and the parking areas will decrease, aspects Danner failed to mention. Additionally, the one-percent sales tax increase will not fund the light rail connection to Tampa, a crucial aspect on which many voters are misguided.
Liedtke said the light rail does not result in increased use of public transit, as demonstrated by other nationwide examples, hence does not affect automobile usage. A survey of Gulfport residents conducted in the summer showed no need for more public transit, Liedtke said.
“I completely disagree,” said Liedtke, to the supposition that proposed transit is fairly funded. He argued the plan badly impacts the county’s poorest residents and disabled veterans. Within the last 10 years, the dense Pinellas County has seen more senior population growth, while the age group that needs public transit is smallest, he said.
He also mentioned the upcoming costs of the redevelopment of the pier, Tropicana field and the bridge to Tampa.
“We have been unsatisfied…with PSTA’s incompetence,” Liedtke said regarding transport maintenance, neglect of existing infrastructure, poor management and lack of right leadership. He argued the light rail is a regression, not a progressive step into the future where smartphone-operated cruise-control cars are anticipated.
In his summary, Danner said the Greenlight Pinellas is a “great opportunity” and a “crossroads” where the community works together to reinvent the entire transit system.
Liedtke rebutted by sharing his own plan, calling for a new CEO for PSTA, improvements to the bus system, new technology and the possibility of building a new port.