On 4 November 2014 we go to the polls to elect who will be our next Governor of the State of Florida among other things. However, if you live in Pinellas County, keep reading this blog as I want to speak with you about a referendum that will mean the difference as far as mass transit is concerned in Pinellas County as well as the Tampa Bay region as a whole.
That referendum is called Greenlight Pinellas.
Greenlight Pinellas is a referendum, if approved by the voters of Pinellas County on 4 November 2014, will pave the way for better and more enhanced bus service plus the implementation of light rail mass transit. It would increase the county discretionary sales tax while at the same time it would eliminate the tax for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority from your property tax bill if you own a home in Pinellas County.
Now you're saying to yourself, "another tax?" That answer is no, Greenlight Pinellas is not another tax. Instead, Greenlight Pinellas shifts the tax from the homeowner to anyone who pays sales tax on most items we buy at the store.
OK. By now you are saying to yourself that you are skeptical of another tax. If you keep reading you will understand why Greenlight Pinellas is needed and the benefits for you Pinellas County residents, especially if you live on one side of Pinellas County and commute to work on the other side of Pinellas.
Let's say you live, say, in Palm Harbor. You commute to your job daily in downtown St. Petersburg. The current situation as it is now as far as transit in Pinellas County is concerned there is infrequent bus service, not to mention the fact that you have to change buses somewhere in order to reach your destination.
As transit in Pinellas County as well as the Tampa Bay region is iffy at best, most of us have to depend on our automobiles in order to commute to work daily. However, there are people out there that cannot or do not have the financial resources to own an automobile which effectively shuts a lot of people out of plenty of employment opportunities.
Besides, owning an automobile is great as is allows you plenty of flexibility. However, owning an automobile carries with it a lot of financial obligations:
1. Gasoline for your automobile. You and I know that we have to fill up at least once a week, if not more depending on how you use your automobile. Then you have to take into consideration the rising and falling level of gasoline prices, similar to what a magician does when he or she performs the levitation illusion. When was the last time Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay region saw gas prices exceed $4.00 a gallon?
2. Repairs and maintenance for your automobile. Yes you got to keep the oil changed in your automobile and perform all the other maintenance tasks in order to keep your automobile in peak operating condition. That can set you back a good sum of money depending on which maintenance procedure you need to perform, whether you take your automobile to the dealer or to the service facility of your choice.
3. Insurance. You and I know that insurance for your automobile is not an option - it is the law in Florida that you must carry insurance on your automobile. The premium you pay for automobile insurance depends on a lot of factors, and one of them is how long is your commute to work one way daily.
For instance, let's say you live in the New Tampa area of Tampa off of Bruce B. Downs Blvd. and you commute to work in downtown St. Petersburg daily using Interstate 275. That's a long commute to work! As such, expect to pay a higher insurance premium compared to if your place of employment was just around the corner.
After all, we could think about living close to our places of employment but that would more than likely be prohibitively expensive depending on where you work.
4. For those of you that work in downtown St. Petersburg, there is yet an additional expense for owning an automobile: Parking in a downtown St. Petersburg parking garage or lot which sets you back quite a sum a month. No matter why downtown St. Petersburg employers have trouble trying to hire and retain great talent: Working in downtown St. Petersburg can get very expensive, especially on the small to medium salaries offered.
Speaking of commuting to work by using your personal automobile, more than likely you use at one point or another Interstate 275 to get to where you are going. Unfortunately, you hit the heavy traffic that crawls to a snail's pace during the morning or evening commute.
One of the many reasons companies lose valuable team players: The commute to and from work is too long, which seriously disrupts the work-life balance.
Of course we can widen Interstate 275 to, let's say twenty lanes. Would that solve the problem? Probably not.
Presently Interstate 275 is being widened and reconstructed in Tampa from Exit 39 (FL 60) to just west of Exit 44 (Ashley/Tampa/Scott Streets). In fact, an important feature of the Interstate 275 reconstruction is a wide median so that a future commuter rail line could be built.
Which leads us to the Howard Frankland Bridge, connecting Pinellas with Hillsborough County.
Presently the original 1960 span - the span that initially carried two way traffic with two lanes in each direction, now the northbound span which was converted in 1991 when a four lane southbound span was opened - is almost at its end of service life. From what I understand the plan is to replace the Howard Frankland northbound span with a new northbound span just to the south of where the current northbound span is now, and use the footprint of the current northbound span for a possible light and/or commuter rail line.
This is where a light rail line from Pinellas County could be routed to Tampa International Airport as well as downtown Tampa. After all, light rail in Pinellas County is in the Greenlight Pinellas plan and adding that important connection to Tampa via Interstate 275 would be an asset.
Another aspect of why Interstate 275 could not be widened any further is the price of land. After all, if land has to be acquired by the Florida DOT for an Interstate 275 project that adds to the cost of a project quite significantly, given today's slowly recovering real estate market. Besides, land especially in Pinellas County is at a premium.
Of course rail based mass transit is the key. You can build on rail based mass transit by adding better bus service as an enhancement to rail service.
Let's talk rail based mass transit for a moment.
Realize that Miami/Ft. Lauderdale and now Orlando have rail based commuter rail systems, Tri-Rail and SunRail respectively. Tri-Rail was originally implemented as a temporary solution while Interstate 95 is being totally reconstructed. Instead, Tri-Rail was kept and the people of Miami/Ft. Lauderdale now have better choices when it comes to mobility.
Unfortunately, Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay region has practically no rail based mass transit, the only exceptions being either the TECO Street Car connecting Tampa's Ybor City entertainment district with downtown Tampa or the weekend excursions between Parrish and Willow provided by the Florida Railroad Museum in Manatee County.
If you want to experience rail travel without the expense of staying overnight somewhere, the Florida Railroad Museum has something for you every weekend with train rides at 11 AM and 2 PM Saturdays and Sundays. Special themed events are also scheduled throughout the year.
And we can't forget Amtrak service into Tampa's Union Station twice daily, the southbound Silver Star (Train 91) to Miami and the northbound Silver Star (Train 92) to Orlando, Jacksonville, Washington D.C. and New York City.
Rail based mass transit - whether it may be light rail or commuter rail - is the choice of travel that we residents of Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay region need. Not only it would help take a good deal of traffic off the roads, it would also be friendly for the environment. Instead of hopping in your car and traveling on Interstate 275 to work, simply head on over to the rail station and catch the train to work. While on board, catch up on your morning news on your smartphone and sit back and enjoy the commute while someone else is doing the driving.
Back in 2012 over Labor Day weekend I took a trip to San Diego. One day I took a ride on the light rail line connecting downtown San Diego with San Ysidro, which is right on the Mexican border and Tijuana is a stone's throw away as you get off the light rail. When I was headed back to downtown San Diego to get my car I thought to myself, if San Diego can do this with their light rail solution between downtown San Diego and San Ysidro why can't St. Petersburg and Pinellas County have a system similar to San Diego's?
All of this will be possible if we pass Greenlight Pinellas on Tuesday, 4 November 2014. Greenlight Pinellas will mean the difference as far as mass transit in Pinellas County is concerned. It will also mean the difference as far as mass transit in the remainder of the Tampa Bay region is concerned: If Greenlight Pinellas passes, it is more than likely that Hillsborough County will move forward with a similar plan.
So, what are you waiting for?
On Tuesday, 4 November 2014, do whatever it takes to simply head on over to your assigned polling place. When you arrive present your photo/signature ID to the poll worker and you will be handed a ballot. Take that ballot to a privacy booth or the ballot marking machine whichever you prefer. After you complete that ballot, scan your ballot and that's all there is to it!
After all, Greenlight Pinellas is not only Pinellas County's future - it is the future of the Tampa Bay region if we want to be competitive.