Pinellas transit referendum language approved 6-1 after outpouring of support listen12/11/13 Janelle Irwin
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Pinellas County Commissioners approved ballot language asking for a one penny sales tax to fund transit improvements that would include passenger rail. More than 50 pro-transit advocates spoke in favor of the referendum during a four hour public hearing Tuesday night.
A positive vote in 2014 would start the new funding on January 1, 2016 and run indefinitely unless it’s repealed. It would fund expanded bus service including increased frequency and bus rapid transit as well as local passenger rail with regional connections. Maria Hayes is a single mother of two school-aged daughters. She says she moved here four years ago with only $1,000 in her pocket and had no choice but to use public transit for 18 months.
“My day consisted of getting on the bus and taking one child to the daycare and then getting on another bus and dropping this child off to her school and then getting on another bus and then another bus to get to work in Clearwater Beach. That was everyday, Monday through Friday. Saturdays I would get on a bus and go to the grocery store. Sometimes I would like to take the girls to the beach so we would take the trolley to the beach. I can assure you those 18-months without a car was hell.”
In addition to providing bus service later into the evening and on weekends, the Greenlight Pinellas plan includes passenger rail connecting downtown St. Petersburg to the Gateway district around the Carillon business district home to corporate giants like Raymond James and HSN. It would continue north to Clearwater. There are also plans to connect to Tampa when the Howard Frankland Bridge is replaced around 2025. Tony Caso and others within the No Tax for Tracks groups opposed to the Greenlight Pinellas plan say they aren’t opposed to improving transit, just not through this plan.
“What you’re actually doing is creating a double taxation situation for the residents of Pinellas County. You’re instituting a sales tax before an ad valorem taxing authority’s taxing authority is actually repealed which has to be done at the state level. As long as that’s still in place, you’re creating that situation for the people of Pinellas County. You actually have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of Pinellas County to make sure they’re not put into that situation.”
But according to Pinellas County Commission chair Ken Welch, that claim is just not true.
“The inference that we’re going to double tax is just wrong. Our legislative delegation actually did pass a bill that would have eliminated the PSTA property tax; that was vetoed by the governor. I have no doubt whatsoever that if this passes that we will have another bill go through that will eliminate the PSTA property tax.”
If approved by voters next November, the surtax would replace about $30 million in annual property tax revenue with approximately $130 million in sales tax revenue. Supporters call it a tax swap to make it more palatable to voters. The influx would go a long way to keeping the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority solvent as well as pay off some debts. But opponents argue the change in tax structure is regressive. St. Pete brain surgeon David McKalip, a longtime opponent of funding rail, was one of fifteen people to speak against the referendum.
“Shame on you, shame, for trying to take $120 million a year out of the pockets of families, children, the elderly and the poor from their shopping bills, their utility bills, electric bills, phone bills, car purchases, household goods, furniture clothes and books to build a train from Clearwater to St. Petersburg that few will ride and that will still need $1.7 billion to build.”
Despite push-back from the largely tea-party-driven group of opponents, the commission approved ballot language 6-1. Only commissioner Norm Roche voted against the measure, arguing there are too many holes in the Greenlight Pinellas plan to move forward. Roche, who is also on the board of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, has repeatedly asked his colleagues to postpone a decision.
“For this commissioner – I’m only speaking for myself – have not received those answers. I haven’t received the answers and I have tremendous concerns on our plans or lack there of. We have no guarantees on the funding. The recent actions at the state level and the federal level that are out there right now that are going to affect nearly 50% of this funding …”
Many of Roche’s questions have been answered though. The current plan has been in the works through various discussions for decades, but began taking shape in 2010 with the Alternatives Analysis that outlined a need for improved transit in Pinellas. Commissioner Janet long also sits on the PSTA board.
“Well I did attend all the meetings of PSTA and I clearly remember the meeting where all of the Alternative Analysis was discussed that commissioner Roche had so many concerns about. It was very unfortunate that he was not there, but nevertheless, I don’t believe that doing nothing is an option because we were elected to lead and to take this county into the future.”
The ballot initiative will likely be promoted by a local PR firm, Tucker Hall. One of the benefits being touted is the opportunity for economic development and job growth. Savannah DeLuca is a recent USF graduate and transit user in downtown St. Pete. She says many students and recent grads choose to move away from areas because they can’t afford what transit advocates claim is up to $10,000 in annual costs to own and operate a car.
“So, I’m one of many people who I think are coming here for school and leaving the area to seek options where we can live in communities that have really good transit that we can just take that off the plate. My biggest pet peeve in the world is traffic and second is parking and parking tickets and I live in downtown St. Pete where it’s never ending. I’ve lived in Old Northeast and I can hardly even get to park in my own home sometimes because there’s so many events down there.”
Still opponents claim Pinellas should fund road improvements to reduce congestion. Referring to Hayes, the single mom who used public transit for 18-months, another speaker, Regina Brown refuted her claim that people without cars need access to expanded transit options.
“We were all touched by the young lady who came up here with her two children who landed here with $1,000 in her pocket four years ago – she’s raising her children. Part of her success story was, she was able to buy a car.”
Opponents also question the fiscal sustainability of increased transit claiming buses are often empty or near empty. The No Tax for Tracks website displays a photo of a PSTA bus with the caption, "Why are the windows so dark?" However, PSTA has posted record ridership for months. In August, the agency set an all-time record for that month with more than 1.2 million rides.