BY KEN WELCH, Pinellas County Commissioner
PINELLAS COUNTY — One of the most important issues facing our community is the need to improve our system of public transportation.
Ken Welch, Pinellas County Commissioner
When public transportation is affordable, efficient and customer-friendly, it empowers our citizens to move around our county for work, school, church, shopping and other activities conveniently and reliably. For that reason, transportation is a key element of many of the issues that I’ve worked on as your County Commissioner.
Our constrained transportation system, tied to the lack of transportation options in Pinellas, often limits the ability of many in our community to obtain employment, access educational and medical services, and pursue other opportunities and activities.
The common thread is the need for transportation options to allow our citizens to access services, employment and activities beyond the local neighborhood. In many ways, transportation is the gateway to opportunity. And to move our community forward, Pinellas must invest in a modern public transportation system.
That’s what Greenlight Pinellas is all about – building a public transportation system that will provide affordable, convenient and dependable transit service to every part of Pinellas County. As we become more connected as a region, it’s also important that we work towards developing service to Tampa and to Pasco County. Greenlight Pinellas will set the foundation for those regional connections as well.
The Greenlight Pinellas plan
With the Greenlight Pinellas transportation plan, our bus system will improve quickly and dramatically in every part of the county. Wait times between buses will be shorter – 15 to 30 minutes on most routes – compared to the 1-hour wait that’s required on many bus routes now. Buses will run later in the evening and more often on weekends, and the customer experience will be improved with additional bus shelters, Wi-Fi, real-time route information, and better ways to connect to PSTA buses (and eventually, light rail) by bicycling, walking, or by using park and ride lots for longer trips.
Greenlight Pinellas will transform our transit system to a system that many will choose to use, even if they have an automobile. And by doing that, it will take cars off of our often-congested roads.
The plan also includes the most talked about element – light rail connecting Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park, Gateway and St. Petersburg, with a future connection to Tampa. Light rail will provide us with a proven, congestion-proof way to travel throughout the county, and eventually to other parts of Florida.
Like the High Speed Rail project that President Obama worked to bring to Florida, the light rail element of Greenlight Pinellas will provide an economic boost to our community, and will produce about 3,000 jobs a year through direct transit employment, while also creating opportunities for new development around the 16 train stations along the St. Petersburg-to-Clearwater route.
We have seen this new development, which is called transit-oriented development, occur in Charlotte, Denver, Orlando, and many other communities that have invested in light rail transportation.
A fair sales tax
These dramatic improvements to our bus system, the development of light rail, and the creation of thousands of local jobs will require an investment, and that investment must fairly distribute the project costs so that our community, and our visitors, all make a fair contribution.
The Greenlight plan incorporates a 1 percent sales tax, which will fund the local requirements for the improvements to the transit system. Pinellas voters will be asked to approve this 1 percent transit tax on November 4.
Unlike the current PSTA property tax, which is not levied countywide, everyone who spends money in Pinellas will contribute by paying the 1 percent sales tax. It’s estimated that as much as 30 percent or more of the new sales tax will be paid by the more than 5 million tourists who visit Pinellas annually.
It’s appropriate that our visitors help support the infrastructure that will keep our county vibrant and accessible. Meanwhile, the current PSTA property tax will be eliminated via contractual interlocal agreement between the County Commission and PSTA. Also, like the current sales tax, items like food and medicine will be exempt from the 1 percent transit tax. Polk County is expected to also have a 1 percent transit sales tax referendum on November’s ballot, and Hillsborough County is expected to follow with a transit plan and referendum in the near future.
Modern public transportation is critical for the long-term success of our community. Greenlight Pinellas will transform our current bus system into a truly countywide, efficient and dependable transit system for our community, will add a highly desirable, convenient light rail system, and will produce jobs and opportunities for new development.
Greenlight Pinellas will help us build a stronger community by connecting citizens with opportunities and services throughout Pinellas and Tampa Bay. For more information on the Greenlight plan, go to www.greenlightpinellas.com, or contact my Commission office at 727-464-3614.