PSTA forwards transit measure to Pinellas County Commission for referendum decision

01/23/13 Janelle Irwin
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On Wednesday Pinellas transit officials unanimously approved plans to move forward with a transit overhaul by passing the issue to county commissioners. During three hours of public comment Michael Marino with the Tampa Bay Partnership said he met more than 100 times with people in the community about what their priorities were and the answer almost every time was improved transit.

"This is not a debate about taxes or trains. This is a debate about do you want to have a positive impact on the economic prosperity of Pinellas's residents and businesses."

But it is about taxes and trains. Almost all of the nearly 40 speakers in favor of a transit referendum were excited about the prospect of light rail. Another dozen speakers lamented the proposal to let Pinellas County Commissioners decide whether or not to put a 1% sales tax referendum on the ballot in November, 2014. But during his meetings with business owners and their workers, Marino said they all want to see improvements.

"When you leave here this afternoon go to HSN, ask the dozens of new employees if they see themselves driving on 275 in 2020. Go out to lunch and ask the guy cleaning your table if he likes waiting 30 minutes for a bus. Go to Countryside High School and ask those students if they want their future children riding their bikes across 580. Ask the tourist if they would rather drive or take a train to go to the Dali museum. Investing in multi-modal transportation is one of the best things a community can do to impact economic growth and development."

Even though the PSTA decision was a sweep, transit enhancements are still controversial. A PSTA study called the Alternatives Analysis calls for $1.5 billion worth of light rail stretching from downtown St. Pete to Clearwater. The “No Tax For Tracks” group is leery of the proposal to swap shaky property tax revenue for an additional penny sales tax. Joe Paige, an outspoken conservative, reeled through a whole host of beefs he had with the transit agency’s plans and scoffed at studies that showed how much money riders could save by ditching their cars.

"Coincidentally the same study also concluded that you could save 40 thousand annually on shelter, clothing, and food if you sat huddled in the corner of a tin roof shed covered with a filthy blanket munching on a dirt cookie."

Paige, who spoke on behalf of several others in the anti-rail group, then launched into a speech about how governments are wasting valuable dollars improving bike and pedestrian paths.

"If we wouldn't have taken all of the money and built the Pinellas trail and bought environmental lands and preserves and parks and everything else, we'd have that money. It's just a red herring, it's a straw man. And they also say "Well, the gas tax, we subsidize the highways, too." Well, yeah, that again, the gas tax is used for things that it wasn't meant to be used for. It's used for making..building bicycle trails. Bicyclists, they don't pay registration, they don't pay gas tax, yet we bend over backwards building bicycle lanes for these folks."

His verbal assault on the issue was met with groans and snickering from the standing-room-only PSTA board room. Paige and his following of anti-rail folks were outnumbered three to one by environmentalists and transit advocates who have been urging officials to get the ball rolling on a transit overhaul for years. Charlotte Sullivan works in the airline industry and said she recently traveled to Cleveland where she was able to hop on a train to her hotel.

"The taxi to get to my hotel I was advised was $35, I took the light rail for $2.25. It was safe, it was clean, it was fast, it was efficient."

Transit advocates in the region love the idea of rail, but they also want sweeping improvements to all modes of transportation. The most immediate impacts of transit enhancements would be expanded bus service. Several speakers, including those opposed to the referendum, said the county needs shorter wait times at bus stops. Brad Miller, PSTA’s CEO, said if revenue isn’t raised, the agency will face crippling cutbacks.

"The problem with that is then that same lower level of bus service, inflation will take over and those expenses for that level of service will grow. In 2017 we will be in a deficit. There will be no revenue reserve and we'll have to cut again in 2017. And then a little bit in 2018 to keep within our revenue."

Critics of raising revenue argue that the tax referendum is just a way to bail out a financially failing transit agency. But Miller said that’s not true.

"The savings that we were able to generate last year in 2012 and in prior years the board voted as a policy decision to, knowing what looms out in the future, take those savings and reinvest those over the next three years so we can have a balanced budget in those years."

Officials expect Pinellas County Commissioners – four of which are on the PSTA board – to put the referendum on the ballot in 2014. If that happens and voters approve it, sales tax in Pinellas County would go from 7% to 8%.

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