It's at least 20 months before Pinellas County voters could get a say on whether they want to pay for a light-rail network, but the battle over the issue is heating up.
The Florida Suncoast Sierra Club is offering free tacos to entice supporters of transit to pack a county commission meeting today. Meanwhile, opponents have filed lawsuits to try and derail the plans.
Both sides are hoping to sway Pinellas County commissioners, who today are scheduled to vote on whether to move forward with a referendum on the November 2014 ballot asking residents to raise the sales tax to pay for light rail and an expanded bus system.
"We're focused on transportation all over the region, and this is a critical vote," said Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, a group advocating for mass transit options on both sides of the bay.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board, which includes four county commissioners, requested the referendum at a meeting last month.
If approved by voters, the sales tax would increase by one penny. The revenue would go toward the cost of building 24 miles of light rail from Clearwater to downtown St. Petersburg, a substantially expanded bus system, traffic lanes dedicated for buses and more pedestrian trails, among other things.
Transit advocates say there is not enough room to keep expanding road networks and that an improved mass transit system is the only way to avoid future gridlock.
The light-rail system would cost an estimated $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion to build.
That's a price tag gladly seized upon by opponents, who say it would be a huge gamble because there is no proof enough residents would give up their cars to ride in buses or light rail.
"They are over-estimating ridership, underestimating the costs," said Barbara Haselden, a member of Pinellas 9-12, a group advocating for smaller government and lower taxes.
Haselden is one of a group of residents who last week filed a lawsuit asking a judge to block four commissioners from voting on county issues because they are likely to be removed from office for exceeding term limits.
Phil Compton, regional representative of Sierra Club's national green transportation campaign, said polls show that residents want transportation choices, including rail.
"It's important for the commission to know that most people do want this," he said. "It's about having the kind of choice that every American has in large metropolitan areas except ours."
Today's meeting is at 2 p.m. on the fifth floor of the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.