Pinellas Transportation Task Force considers regional sales tax for light rail

11/16/10 Matthew Cimitile
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Hillsborough County voters have rejected a one-cent transit sales tax, but what about the other side of the Bay? The Pinellas Transportation Task Force met yesterday to discuss a variety of revenue options for a light rail system in Pinellas County.

The Task Force of county officials, business leaders and other citizens are considering a regional transit sales tax to fund a light rail system that would link to a proposed high-speed rail terminus in Tampa. Pinellas County Commission Chair Karen Seel said a tax, if adopted towards a county referendum or legislative vote, would have to mainly fund projects like light rail and improved bus connectivity.

“With the transit sales tax, you can do 100 percent transit, but you can’t do more than 25 percent roads, etc. 75 percent has to be on transit, 25 percent can be on other modalities if you choose.”

Most members favored applying 88 percent of revenues from a potential tax to transit projects with the other 12 percent being divided up between improving roads, sidewalks and trails. Cathy Harrelson, conservation and coastal task force chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club, added that investing in an improved bus system to shuttle people around between high-speed and light rail is fundamental to selling the rail system to the public and its overall success.

“Bus routes being showcased as being equal priority really need to be emphasized. For making it work for all parts of the county and we did showcase that was equally important to the rail as far as selling it to the public.”

Though the regional transit sales tax appeared to be the group consensus, other revenue options were discussed including selling naming rights to transit stations and a possible five-cent gas tax. Mark Carlson is Senior Vice President of Investments at Merrill Lynch.

“With a gas tax is not only a tax on a revenue source but it is also a psychological process. If you tax them driving then over time they will reduce their use of driving useage. I’m just all about getting all the sources. We are one of the few counties that haven’t done this and we need to max out.”

The group will make its final recommendations next month. Seal said the group will decide on what revenue option to pursue and if they should hold off on any possible tax until the economy improves.

“Next step is our final meeting December 13. At that point we will tackle if you want to pursue the regional sales tax or if you want to look at a referendum for Pinellas County only as the initial step in looking at a sales tax. That will take place at the next meeting then we will either sunset for a time period what we previous talk about if we don’t think the time is right in this economy to discuss any potential taxes and then come back perhaps a year from now and have further discussions at that point. But that will be the will of you all as a group at the next meeting.”

Besides the slumping economy, the political situation in Florida has drastically changed. Nearly 60 percent of Hillsborough voters rejected a one percent sales tax to fund light rail, tea-party favorite Rick Scott, whose stance on high-speed rail has been tepid at best, was elected Governor and new chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, John Mica, has suggested scaling back the high-speed project to just Orlando and nearby attractions.

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Dude… let me see if I’ve got this. Pinellas wants to go to a light rail system… so that they can tie into the high speed rail system slated for Tampa… but Hillsborough voted down its light rail system that Pinellas would need to hook-up with… to get to that high speed rail system??? So… even though Hillsborough said “No”… if Pinellas says “Yes” anyway… their light rail system would have to stop at the Gandy… Howard Franklin… and the Courtney Campbell bridges… where our bus system would have to expand into… to pick-up and transport everyone to the high speed rail terminal in Tampa… but… because Hillsborough voted down its light rail system… which included federal funding for the public bus system… Tampa is now looking at a 10% to 20% reduction in that funding for its public bus transportation… did I get that right??? QUICKLY… everyone, drop what you’re doing… contact UPS… and learn what you can about this thing they call… L-O-G-I-S-T-I-C-S!!!

better logistics

Rather than worry about what Hillsborough might or might not do, a light rail system in Pinellas makes better sense in that it could connect St. Pete and Clearwater, possibly along the coast or by way of the Clearwater Airport. In that way a better connection to Tampa's airport and rail head would make more sense, if only by increasing the buses that PSTA already sends into Tampa.

I just like saying... logistics

You are absolutely right… Pinellas has more going for it than Hillsborough ever will… the beaches… culture… and a real night life. The biggest reason used to move Tropicana Field is parking… problem solved. While they’re at it… don’t just rebuild the St. Pete pier… but take the Albert Whitted Airport and combine the two… dredge a little deeper around them to allow small and medium sized cruise ships to dock… add a small ferry system from Channel Side to Vinoy (or not)… Dude… break out the Crayolas’ and color me in…