May 19--ST. PETERSBURG -- Transit leaders have been largely on the defensive since county commissioners agreed to put the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan on the November ballot.
A Tampa Bay area public transportation agency chairman resigned from the Greenlight campaign after opponents, including No Tax for Tracks, said his involvement was a conflict of interest. The same group blasted Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority for spending up to $800,000 on an educational campaign that is now under investigation by state transportation officials.
Now, in another sign that the campaign over the future of transit in Pinellas is getting more heated, supporters of Greenlight are fighting back.
The nonprofit group Connect Tampa Bay is warning voters that No Tax for Tracks is pushing for the privatization of county buses, and that defeat of the Greenlight plan would mean a 30 percent cut in bus routes, leaving many remote parts of the county with little or no service.
Connect Tampa Bay executive director Kevin Thurman on Monday described No Tax for Tracks as a group of tea party insiders who favor severe cuts to the county's bus network, which would result in layoffs and hardship for residents who rely on buses to get to work, he says.
"It's important for everyone to look at what is this group trying to accomplish," Thurman said. "Legitimate people are starting to take some of their distortions and lies seriously."
PSTA leaders have warned that defeat for Greenlight could result in existing bus services being slashed by roughly 30 percent as the agency can no longer continue using reserve funds as it has in recent years.
A page on the No Tax for Tracks website welcomes those cuts: "We say cutting 30 percent now is the right thing to do." No Tax campaign manager Barbara Haselden stepped back from that message, saying the group favors keeping PSTA revenue at its current level and "fixing the system" by reassigning buses from less popular routes to the busiest routes to increase frequency.
"The system needs to be realigned," she said. "The empty buses we see running all over are evidence of that."
Thurman said that would be devastating for the county's poorest residents.
"This is the only plan I know of to cut bus service in Florida," he said. "It cuts off ways people can get to work."
The 30-year Greenlight plan that goes before voters Nov. 4 would expand bus services, adding more routes and running buses more frequently to encourage passengers to leave their cars at home. Bus Rapid Transit -- traffic systems designed to give buses priority -- would be developed on some of the county's key corridors. Development also would begin on a proposed 24-mile light-rail network from Clearwater to St. Petersburg.
The money would come from a one-penny sales tax hike that would bring in roughly $130 million a year. That revenue would replace the current property tax that brings in roughly $30 million a year for PSTA.
The plan has received bipartisan support from most local elected officials, with only a handful of local leaders opposing it. It is also backed by the Sierra Club, the NAACP and other groups.
No Tax for Tracks' campaign has focused largely on the controversial and expensive light-rail component of Greenlight, particularly its estimated $1.6 billion price tag.
Its latest campaign includes is a 40-foot sail boat with a "Vote No" message below a Greenlight logo, intended to reach Pinellas beachgoers.
"I understand why Kevin Thurman is trying to throw rocks at us, but we are on the side of the taxpayer and we are going to prevail," Haselden said.
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