Click the arrow to listen to the full Suncoast Tiger Bay Club “State of the Bay 2019.” Audio provided by Radio St. Pete.
Between congenial laughs and spirited quips, the three Tampa Bay area mayors tackled some serious questions from the crowd at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s luncheon Thursday.
Mayors Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, George Cretekos of Clearwater, and Bob Buckhorn of Tampa came together to share thoughts on their respective cities during the “State of the Bay” event at Feather Sound Country Club. This was the trio’s third appearance together, and the last that will include Buckhorn, whose term is set to end May 1.
Between questions on affordable housing, school safety, climate change and baseball, the topic of regional transportation regularly resurfaced among each of the three mayors as an important priority for the region to tackle.
Cretekos began the discussion in his opening remarks, praising Buckhorn and Hillsborough County for their work on the All for Transportation initiative, the one cent for transportation ballot measure that passed overwhelmingly in November.
“I’ve seen US 19 as a two-lane road that would take us a half hour to get from mom and dad’s to Wolfie’s on 34th St,” said Cretekos, a native of Tarpon Springs. “Now it takes us a half hour now to get through two stop lights.”
“Its incumbent upon us to make sure, if we want this area to grow and to prosper and to continue to be that special place, we in Pinellas County need to follow [Tampa’s] lead.”
Buckhorn was quick to point out the transportation tax had a long and storied history prior to its ultimate success in 2018 – a history marked with failures. “I thought up until November that one of my biggest regrets leaving office would be not being able to make headway on the transportation issue,” he said.
“We had a failed attempt in 2010,” said Buckhorn. “In 2016 they refused to even give the voters the opportunity to choose for themselves, which was really frustrating. In 2018, a citizen-led petition got enough signatures to get it on the ballot and the volunteers associated with that really worked this hard.”
“We voted both for transportation and for a half cent tax for schools, which put us as the highest sales tax in the state of Florida. But clearly that was a decision that the voters were willing to live with and a price they were willing to pay, largely because the pain threshold in my county had been reached.”
Buckhorn argued that the way to pass such a measure in Pinellas County was not through top-down measures, but through bottom-up activism of the business community and other organizations. Getting neighbors to understand the importance of transportation is vital, said Buckhorn. “If we don’t do something about transportation, we will kill the goose that laid the golden egg … it’s an investment in your future.”
Kriseman has seen his own share of transit failures. Greenlight Pinellas, an effort to bring mass transit light rail to Pinellas County, failed in 2014 – the same year he took office – with 62 percent of residents opposed. Now, five years after the sting of Greenlight Pinellas’ failure, Kriseman said Thursday that mass transit would be a “primary focus” of his last three years.
“We’ve got to look at all of the options available to us. The DOT has been talking about premium transit service from Wesley Chapel that ultimately would go to downtown St. Petersburg. That is incredibly important.
“While I’d love to have light rail, and I know a lot of other folks would, right now the federal government and the state government aren’t funding it,” Kriseman explained. “So we’ve got to take that step and give ourselves the flexibility – that gets you from Wesley Chapel to USF Tampa to Downtown Tampa to Westshore to Carillon to Downtown St. Petersburg. Then we’ve got to connect to the beaches and all over the county.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway? Learning from the mistakes of Pinellas and the successes of Hillsborough, said Kriseman. “We need to incorporate the good things that they did and get rid of the bad things that we did,” he said.
Pinellas County Commissioners Charlie Justice and Ken Welch were also in attendance, prompting Cretekos to call upon them to listen up to the needs of their constituents as well, and for constituents to make their voices heard.
“We can’t do this by ourselves, we need you to help us out,” said Cretekos. “We need you to make sure that people understand that local government needs help to provide this type of infrastructure improvement.
“Tampa failed the first time. The business community and the residents came together the second time to get it done. And that’s what we have to do to make sure that our elected officials know that that’s what we want.”