ST. PETERSBURG — Those pushing for light rail in Pinellas County closely watched how voters rejected a penny sales tax for transit in Hillsborough County — and took notes.
"I don't think (Hillsborough) was ready," said St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner of the November 2010 vote. "It was more politically driven, and practical things, like routes and cost, hadn't been figured out yet. We're going about it much differently."
Hopes for a different outcome hinge on a newly released study by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which recommends a 24-mile route that stretches south from downtown Clearwater along a CSX freight corridor, twists east toward the Gateway area, then south again to downtown St. Petersburg and Tropicana Field along Interstate 275.
Estimated to cost between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion, the proposed system won't be sprung on an unsuspecting public. Instead, transportation officials will spend the next year holding meetings to discuss the project and collecting comments from residents. It's unclear when county commissioners will vote to put a tax on the ballot, but the earliest residents could decide would be 2013 or 2014.
That deliberate pace puts the project on a better track for success, said Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel.
"We are further along than Hillsborough was," Seel said. "We've already done a study. We've chosen the routes and looked at the financial feasibility. We've been very cautious in our approach. It hurt their case in Hillsborough that they didn't have the routes and costs. We are going to fully vet this."
Even with all that planning, success is far from certain. Tea party groups that opposed Hillsborough's efforts are already objecting to any rail planned in Pinellas. At least three county commissioners — Nancy Bostock, Neil Brickfield, and Norm Roche — are a long way from getting on board with a rail plan.
"Sounds expensive, $1.7 billion," Brickfield said. "I don't know what it's like in your household, but in my household, that's a lot of money."
"I'll be interested in what they have to report," Bostock said. "But I'm skeptical that we have the passenger traffic to sustain a system."
Next Tuesday, commissioners will discuss the $4 million study, which was paid for with state and federal Department of Transportation grants.
Although no source of funding for light rail has been officially identified — and won't be decided until next year by county commissioners — the study examines a penny sales tax. Replacing the property tax that pays for PSTA bus service now, a penny sales tax would raise $128 million a year, enough to pay for light rail and expand current bus service by 70 percent.
The study doesn't look at costs in a vacuum, pointing out that rail brings along many benefits — just like other transportation investments such as airports and highways. The study projects more than 67,000 jobs would be created over 30 years, with about 48,500 jobs created in the struggling construction industry. About 300 jobs, such as drivers and dispatchers, would be needed to operate the light rail system.
In all, the study says the system would pump $4.2 billion into the Pinellas economy, a return of $2.50 on every $1 spent.
Most notably, it would spawn private investment along its tracks, an added enhancement that is expected to deliver an estimated $4 billion windfall of investment around stations in Dallas and another $800 million of investment along Denver's rail line, the study says.
It also would help lure companies to Pinellas that have cited the lack of adequate transit as a reason not to locate to Tampa Bay, according to the study.
A second DOT study is due soon that will look at the costs of replacing the Howard Frankland Bridge, which is near the end of its life span. A new structure could accommodate light rail, either by adding lanes or making it a double decker. That would link Pinellas rail to a future system in Hillsborough.
"That's how the ridership figures really come together," Seel said. "You have 139,000 average daily trips across the Howard Frankland, 28,098 over the Gandy (Bridge), and 55,000 over the Courtney Campbell (Parkway). You start adding that up, and that's a lot of people who would choose to ride this."
But none of it will happen if the study doesn't convince politicians and residents that rail is a worthy investment.
"There's going to be a lot of pushback," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala. "But it's very appropriate to have this discussion. We have to talk about what this area will be like 20 years from now. It's real easy to say that it will cost too much. But all these roads cost money, too."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]