A battle over buses

In the blue corner wearing black trunks is the Greenlight Pinellas Plan. In the red corner wearing white trunks is No Tax for Tracks. Each side will come out boxing until Pinellas County voters knock out one or the other on Nov. 4.

Instead of 12 rounds in a ring, however, the political fisticuffs over the Greenlight Pinellas Plan encompass a countywide arena. It’s all about a proposed 24-mile transit system from St. Petersburg to Clearwater that involves billions of dollars for new buses, increased bus routes and a light rail system.

And here’s where the fireworks get louder and more colorful than the Fourth of July: The plan will be funded if Pinellas County voters approve increasing the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent. However, the portion of taxes that property owners presently pay for bus service to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) would be eliminated.

This would result in an estimated annual tax savings of $32 million for Pinellas homeowners while providing annual revenue of $134 million to PSTA from the added sales tax. The Greenlight plan estimates that the net cost for most homeowners would be about $14 a year, but those who don’t own homes and receive no offsetting tax benefit would pay an additional $104 per year in sales tax.

With no dog in this fight, I can see the pluses for supporting the plan as well as the concerns by those who don’t. The endless details and ramifications can be viewed at (pro) and (con).

After much negotiating with the PSTA, the Pinellas County Commission agreed to put the sales tax referendum on the upcoming November ballot with safeguards to protect the public’s interests if the plan fails or there’s an attempt to raise tax revenue over and beyond the sales tax increase.

All this back and forth by supporters and detractors makes for spirited reading. Do a search of Greenlight Pinellas Plan and brace for story after story of charges and countercharges, claims and disputes, facts and foibles.

I was pleased to note Republicans and Democrats lining up in both corners. While this should be a nonpartisan debate, expect a lot of action in the ring. Proponents of the plan have raised more than $500,000 and hope to reach $1 million by Election Day. That means our mailboxes, TVs, emails and cell phones will be flooded in the ensuing four months – and that’s in addition to all the regular mid-term election activity. However, the Greenlight opponents thus have far been very effective in getting their points across, thanks to plenty of media attention.

A few rabbit punches and head-butts have already been thrown. Take, for instance, the allegations that Tea Party sympathizers back those opposed to the sales tax increase and that the lobbyists the PSTA hired are Democrat organizers who worked in the campaigns of Alex Sink, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Meanwhile, both camps level the hackneyed charge voiced in almost all elections that the other side is influenced by wealthy business interests.

Such accusations are more nuisance than substance and are unlikely to influence the central issue: Would voter approval of the sales tax be a boon to Clearwater and other parts of the county via an improved transit system? Or would it instead be a boondoggle with costly overruns and inefficiency?

I haven’t yet decided how to vote on the Greenlight Pinellas Plan as it’s still a challenge to tune out all the third parties and hired guns throwing sucker punches from the sidelines. But let’s get ready to rumble. Pull up a ringside seat, watch the combatants spar and hope the best boxer is still standing when the final bell rings.

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