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Pasco commissioner suggests tricounty vote on transit

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco planners showed pretty pictures of what parts of the county could look like one day: People walking down lushly landscaped streets, past attractive three-story buildings and outdoor cafes — all only a few blocks away from a light rail station.

Those pictures could change given what happened a week ago in Hillsborough County: Voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax hike that would have paid, in part, for a light rail system hoped to one day link to Pasco and Pinellas counties.

But what if Hillsborough hadn't tried to go it alone?

That's what Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand asked Tuesday at a board workshop. She said Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas should consider a tricounty referendum in coming years.

Pasco's long-range transportation plan calls for a transit tax referendum by 2020, but Hildebrand said a tricounty effort should not wait that long.

"If you have three cheerleading counties, you have a better chance of succeeding," said Hildebrand, Pasco's representative to the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Commissioner Michael Cox said Pasco should lobby its legislative delegation to get the regional authority, known as TBARTA, more power, including an ability to fund itself. He said the stakes are too high for any one county to do the work itself.

"Hillsborough took a shot at it … but quite frankly this thing is bigger than Hillsborough County," said Cox.

The commissioners made their comments during a wide-ranging discussion on Pasco's efforts to change how it grows.

The discussion comes at a time when home building — Pasco's longtime bread-and-butter — is stalled, unemployment is soaring, tax revenues are squeezed and, as Hillsborough voters made clear, the electorate is in little mood to dig deeper.

So what comes next? Key points, which commissioners this year worked into Pasco's land-use plan, include:

• Dividing the county into five geographic "market areas," each with its own priorities. The cost of developing in each area would be different, with the regions where the county wants to focus efforts — U.S. 19, for instance — cheaper than areas where growth is discouraged, such as rural east Pasco.

• New land-use plan language that calls for "transit-oriented design," which promotes development that lets people live, work and shop near rail lines and bus routes.

Pasco's population is expected to double by 2035, from 424,400 in 2006 to 852,200 in 2035.

Nearly half of that growth is projected for southeast Pasco, near the Hillsborough County line. That's the region where most of the mass transit stops — and the development designed around them — are envisioned.

Hildebrand said Pasco is the most logical first connection from Hillsborough. Taking light rail lines from the University of South Florida through New Tampa to the Wiregrass Ranch area would be easier than building a bridge from Hillsborough to Pinellas, she said.

Hildebrand said she would float the idea of a tricounty effort at the next TBARTA meeting but added she wasn't sure how such a proposal would work, including what might be the role of TBARTA.

Asking voters to approve a higher tax during a dismal economy remains the biggest hurdle. But Hildebrand pointed to election results that showed the question did best in precincts along or close to proposed rail lines. In other words, voters who thought they might get rail voted for it.

"It's going to be strength in numbers," she said.

A Pinellas County task force is due to present a recommendation Monday on whether to pursue a transit referendum there.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who helped spearhead the creation of TBARTA, said he has deep reservations about any legislation that would make it a taxing authority.

He said he was glad to hear Pasco commissioners are talking about mass transit but he wasn't certain about another referendum anytime soon.

"Hillsborough sent a clear message they're not interested in this right now," he said. "I feel like the voters in Pasco would be no different given the economic condition."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco commissioner suggests tricounty vote on transit 11/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 8:35pm]
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