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Three things to know after Pinellas transit (rail) summit



ST. PETERSBURG -- A crowd of more than 100 people attended a transit summit at ValPak's headquarters Thursday, the first such big meeting in Pinellas County since voters rejected a sales tax for rail in neighboring Hillsborough County.

"Undaunted is the word I'd put out there for all of us," said Stuart Rogel, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which supports rail and transit improvements.

Here are three things to know:

1. Don't focus entirely on rail. The 2.5-hour session included a presentation on the benefits of bus rapid transit services, essentially faster running buses in dedicated traffic lanes. It didn't include a similar-styled session on light rail, although rail is being studied by transportation officials. A referendum for voters to approve a sales tax increase for transit in Pinellas wasn't a topic either,  a nod to the chilling effect of Hillsborough failure. Instead, the summit was meant to revive general interest in bolstering transit upgrades, particularly among business officials.

"We’re not really certain whether rail will work now. But more than ever, we need to let the study run its course," Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority chairman R.B. Johnson said before the summit.

2. But don't think a sales tax increase attempt is dead. A panel of officials under the PSTA board listened to political consultants' advice on June 14 about when to seek a referendum. The advice: a presidential election year (2012) provides the optimum results. Those officials also have discussed how to change the state law governing PSTA so it could use sales tax money (the agency collects property taxes now). The consensus is a referendum would call for increasing the sales tax up to 1 percent but end the property tax for PSTA -- a sweetner that wasn't part of the Hillsborough vote. Whatever the new transit proposal, PSTA's revenue has dropped because property values have plummetted. Agency leaders want a source of bigger revenue.

"We can’t get to that next level that we’re trying to get our system to without changing the revenue," said PSTA Chairman R.B. Johnson, a member of the agency panel.

3. And don't think a lot of people are settled on a sales tax for rail or buses in 2012. The County Commission would have to agree to put it on the ballot. Herb Polson, chairman of the PSTA panel, said he doubts a majority of voters would support a sales tax increase -- nor would there be enough County Commissioners to pass it.

"I hope they don't do it in 2012. I don't think the atmosphere would be right do it," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican. Meanwhile, Latvala wants to introduce a bill for 2012 combining PSTA with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, saying it would reduce overhead for taxpayers and both agencies already run vehicles across county lines.

[Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2011 2:04pm]


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