TBARTA considers sales tax for transit
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09/26/08 Seán Kinane
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The bay area’s transit board met today in Tampa. One topic the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) covered was long-term funding for regional transportation projects.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, chair of TBARTA’s funding and finance committee, suggested two ways to fund TBARTA long-term: One is through part of a surcharge on rental cars that now goes to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT); another is through an increase in sales tax. Hibbard said TBARTA should be cautious and only go to the public one time for funding.

“We need to create a mechanism for potentially a sales tax for the entire region. … We’d like to see the ability for the entire TBARTA authority to have the ability to potentially levy a tax up to 1 percent … through the referendum process. Not have it be an up and down for the entire region, but a county by county decision.”

But Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio disagreed. She said each individual county should move forward with a sales tax referendum for transit only when that county feels it is appropriate, as is happening in Hillsborough.

“I’m not convinced that TBARTA ought to have the authority to ask counties to put a sales tax on the ballot in their county. I think that has to come from within each county because otherwise it’s not going to pass.”

WMNF asked Iorio whether a county-by-county approach to increasing sales taxes would sacrifice a regional vision of transportation or could reduce the buy-in from smaller counties. Iorio said counties can fund a regional system incrementally because light rail would not be built across the entire region all at once.

“One of the things that I’ve learned from listening to people that have come in from all other cities, Denver and Salt Lake, you name them, we’ve had them all here, is that the light rail systems that are built are done by county by county. It always starts in the most urban county, in this case, Hillsborough, and then the tentacles go out over time as people are willing to buy into it. The way it’s regional is that it’s done under a regional master plan. So every light rail system and commuter rail system would be under the TBARTA regional plan but would be implemented county by county as each county bought into it.”

Bob Clifford is planning director for the FDOT’s Tampa office. Clifford presented transit ideas for six areas within the seven counties TBARTA serves. The plans will eventually be merged into what Clifford called a hybrid network that will go to public hearing in January following community workshops in October and November. Light rail could be prevalent, Clifford said, in the east-west corridors between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

“An interesting one from the connection of the north-south scenario in Hillsborough County to an east-west scenario following the light rail line going near Linebaugh all the way over to Drew Street in Clearwater and using that line in terms of a light rail connection. Connection between Clearwater and St. Petersburg, looking at that existing rail corridor, in that scenario we were looking at commuter rail because of the demand.”

TBARTA received 28 applications for its executive director position by the time the application process closed on Monday. Eighteen of them met the required qualifications, according to TBARTA’s legal counsel, Don Conn, who said that eleven of the applicants are “outstanding.” The selection committee will meet Oct. 6 and begin interviewing selected candidates as early as Oct. 13. Their recommendations could be presented to the TBARTA Board at the October meeting.

The salary of the executive director will be in the range of $150,000 annually, but it is unclear what kind of contract could be offered because TBARTA does not have guaranteed funding after next June. Unless Legislative changes are made, TBARTA’s $2 million budget must be spent by the end of the fiscal year, FDOT’s Bob Clifford said.

“In order to fix that, the Legislature will have to go back and to fix that and either re-appropriate it or change the category to what we call a ‘programs’ budget category that will allow the dollars to be spent over more than one fiscal year. They’re aware of it. We’ve corresponded with the Legislature. The chair sent a letter to the governor recently on that issue; the governor’s office is aware of the issue. The bay area legislative delegation is fully aware of it and they have told us they will do everything in their power to fix that issue.”

Because the required fixes need to be part of a bill during the legislative session, Iorio worried it would give lawmakers an opportunity to cut TBARTA funding.

“The state, every single day is losing revenue. And every day they’re trying to figure out how to cut the budgets that have already gone out there. So our $2 million now is going to be spotlighted in next year’s legislative session during a time of tremendous declining revenues with the governor and the Legislature figuring out how to fund social programs, education, and just basically balance the budget. If we think that somehow we’re going to put our $2 million out there and say 'all we’re asking is for you to move it from this category to that' and not get some unfavorable action taken on it, I don’t think we’re being realistic about how the Legislative process is going to work in ’09.”

The TBARTA Board unanimously approved an extension for the firm of Pennington Moore to provide legal services. The firm was rated first out of three that responded to a request for proposal and were granted a 30-day extension. A longer contract could be approved at the next TBARTA Board meeting on Oct. 24 in Pinellas County.

Photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF

TBARTA

Pam Iorio

Frank Hibbard

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