ST. PETERSBURG — The Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan already is backed by a broad coalition that includes many city councils, neighborhood associations and groups such as the Sierra Club and the NAACP.
Now, high-profile local organizations are getting on board, too, including the Tampa Bay Rays and BayCare Health System.
Friends of Greenlight on Friday announced the support of five major Bay area groups, which included Raymond James Financial, St. Petersburg College and the Pinellas Realtor Association. More companies are expected to follow suit as the political committee looks to raise more than $1 million to persuade voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax hike to pay for increased bus service, a light-rail network and a Bus Rapid Transit system.
Four of the five groups announced Friday are backing up their support with campaign donations, including $25,000 from the Rays and a $245,000 donation from the National Association of Realtors.
By state law, St. Petersburg College cannot contribute financially because it is funded by tax dollars.
The Rays’ backing of Greenlight comes despite the team’s stated intention to move out of Tropicana Field and possibly Pinellas County before its stadium-use agreement expires in 2027.
Rays owners said approval of Greenlight would be a first step toward development of mass transit across Tampa Bay. That would make it easier for fans from both sides of the Bay to get to games. It would also bring new jobs and residents to the area, which would translate to higher attendances wherever the team ends up playing, Rays President Matt Silverman said.
“No matter where we are in the region in the future, that transportation system will benefit the Rays and benefit our fans,” Silverman said.
BayCare hospital chain employs about 23,000 workers across four counties, with about half of them in Pinellas. In addition to physicians and nurses, it employs housekeepers, plumbers, electricians and cafeteria workers, some of whom cannot afford cars.
BayCare CEO Steve Mason said many of those staffers often work late shifts and struggle to get home because of a skeleton bus service that operates after 6 p.m. on many routes.
“All of those individuals are the people we’re trying to help here,” Mason said. “We have got to improve the transportation capability for the workforce of Pinellas County and of Tampa Bay.”
The same issue affects St. Petersburg College students who do not own a car and take night classes, said Kevin Gordon, provost for the Midtown and Downtown campus. Some classes end at 9:40 p.m.
“They really don’t have a whole lot of options,” he said.
That includes Cesar Contreras, who is studying for an associate’s degree in business at the Downtown campus but who once a week takes a class at the Clearwater campus, a bus journey that takes more than two hours.
“It’s like six hours of commuting,” he said. “It’s very tough.”
Approval of the Greenlight plan by Pinellas voters would kick-start a $2.2 billion, 10-year project to expand bus service by 65 percent, add bus-only lanes to some major roads and build a 24-mile light-rail link from Clearwater to St. Petersburg.
That would be paid through annual collections of roughly $130 million in sales tax, which would replace a property tax that currently brings about $30 million per year to Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Opponents of the plan say the higher sales tax will harm the county’s economy, hit the county’s poorest residents in the pocketbook and create an expensive and under-used transportation network.