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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Pinellas eyes Hillsborough rail vote with its own questions



PINELLAS PARK -- As Hillsborough County voters decide the future of light rail there next month, a Pinellas County task force will be watching the results closely.

The task force is due to decide Nov. 15 whether to recommend that Pinellas go forward with a sales tax increase to pay for light rail and more buses. The results in the similar Hillsborough referendum will play into when and if Pinellas goes forward with a similar referendum in 2011 or 2012.

"I have no clue," said County Commissioner Karen Seel when asked about the time and chances of moving forward in Pinellas, where rail has stalled for decades.

But it was clear from questions at a meeting Monday that the board -- led by supporters of adding rail -- have yet to iron out questions, and a vote next year appeared doubtful. Realter Niel Allen questioned the wisdom of pursuing a ballot measure in 2011 because a major study of the costs and routes won't be done until 2012. And many members had questions about how to pay for the upgrades that will run into the billions of dollars. PSTA interim director Denise Skinner said the transit agency's full list of improvements would run nearly $7 billion, though federal and state money would be expected to help pay the cost.

The local revenue available now falls short to add trains or buses.

Property taxes are falling, netting $26 million a year. A Seel-initiated idea to create "tax increment financing" -- essentially using the extra tax money from increased property value on the route -- fell short of expectations. It would produce less than $3 million after the five years of development.

The biggest bang comes from the sales tax hike of 1 percent -- netting $120 million a year. But County Commissioners and some panelists disagree over whether to reduce or kill the transit property tax to make it easier for voters to swallow. And even those projections appear more optimistic than projections for the existing Penny for Pinellas sales tax of 1 percent, as Allen noted.

The commission ultimately will decide whether to put a measure on the ballot.

[Last modified: Monday, October 18, 2010 5:30pm]


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