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Transportation, regionalism dominate discussion at State of the Bay

Margie Manning

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The next time Pinellas County voters cast ballots on funding transportation initiatives, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to make sure it’s a measure that will pass.

A repeat of 2014, when voters rejected Greenlight Pinellas, which would have raised the sales tax by a penny to expand bus service and build a light rail system, would be a damaging setback, Kriseman said at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s annual State of the Bay event Jan. 9.

Kriseman, along with Mayor Jane Castor of Tampa and Mayor George Cretekos of Clearwater, addressed transportation and other issues, including regionalism, climate change and politics, in response to questions from Suncoast Tiger Bay Club members. The hour-long discussion was moderated by Adam Smith, former Tampa Bay Times political editor, now senior vice president at Mercury, a public relations agency.

The issues that didn’t come up that were notable as well. No one asked about the fate of the Tampa Bay Rays and Tropicana Field, although there were joking references to the Rays moving to Clearwater. And no one challenged Kriseman’s statement that St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay “have never been better,” although just hours earlier the Tampa Bay Partnership released a report showing widening economic disparity in the region.

One question was about the the fate of Hillsborough County’s All For Transportation sales tax, a 1 cent sales tax that was approved by voters in 2019 and now is tied up in the courts. Castor hopes the case will be decided in the next couple of months.

“Anything can happen these days, but I believe it will pass. The majority of the citizens voted for it, that’s what they want, and we need to move forward,” Castor said.

Kriseman is keeping an eye on that case, while also talking to Pinellas County officials about next steps.

“The key is to try to decide when is the appropriate time to do it, and what does that look like, so it gives us the best chance of success and we don’t make the same mistakes we made the last time we went out to the voters  on this,” Kriseman said. “Because if we go out again and it doesn’t pass it will be decades before it will be successful. As much as I’d like to do it tomorrow, we need to take our time and make sure we do something that’s going to pass.”

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton has been visiting each county municipality, discussing transit options, Cretekos said.

Kriseman cited record-breaking ridership for the Cross-Bay Ferry, a regional effort with financial backing from the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, as well as Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. He’d like to see the seasonal service expand to year-round with more than one vessel.

Additionally, the Florida Department of Transportation is working on a premium transit plan with Bus Rapid Transit running from Wesley Chapel to USF Tampa to downtown Tampa to Westshore to Carillon to downtown St. Petersburg.

“If that’s successful, there’s no reason it doesn’t go to Clearwater. That’s the kind of regional transit options we’ve got to start giving people,” Kriseman said.

Here are some of the other topics that were discussed.

Regionalism was a major theme. The three mayors said they meet quarterly for lunch and often have phone calls to discuss issues. After the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce changed their names to Tampa Bay EDC and Tampa Bay Chamber a few months ago, Castor said she had discussions with both groups that were “not the nicest.”

“It’s a lesson in how not to roll out something. They are very aware of that,” Castor said. “We’ve talked about codifying the way we work together and the way we market the area … Each of our cities is very unique and has attributes that are attractive worldwide. We need to market that as an area. I think that is critically important.”

Climate change. The Tampa Bay region is the 7th most at-risk in the world and 4th most in the United States, Kriseman said. “We all have a lot of work to do,” Kriseman said. “It’s about mitigation and adaptation. It’s about mitigating our impact on climate change and sea level, reducing our CO2 emissions. But it’s also adapting for the climate change we’re experiencing now and for the future.”

For example, the new St. Pete Pier exceeds FEMA requirements. “Everything we do is aimed at making us more resilient and adapting to what’s happening.”

Tampa has a $400 million stormwater mitigation plan that’s been in progress for several years, Castor said. But it’s also up to individuals to reduce their own carbon footprint.

“Not one of us has to worry about leaving now. If sea level were to rise one foot in Clearwater we would still have a beach,” Cretekos said. “You don’t have to worry about leaving now, but maybe your great-great-great grandchildren will, if each of us doesn’t take responsibility now to be more aware of our environment and what we can do now, not necessarily for ourselves but for the future.”

Politics. Asked if Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is qualified to be president, both Castor and Kriseman, who are Democrats, declined to answer directly, but said “mayors are the ones who get things done.” They each also said former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has an impressive track record.

But Cretekos, a Republican, drew the biggest the biggest reaction when he talked about President Trump.

“Whether you like him or not, whether you agree with him or not, he says a lot of things that people agree with and are embarrassed to admit. Because otherwise he would not have carried Pinellas County,” Cretekos said, to a soft chorus of boos.

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