CLEARWATER — The future of mass transit in Pinellas County is now in the hands of the voters.
By a 6-1 vote, county commissioners agreed to put a referendum on the November ballot that, if passed, would increase the sales tax by 1 percent. The money would be used to expand the county bus system with bus rapid transit, increased frequency, extended hours and light rail. The new tax would kick in Jan. 1, 2016.
Commissioner Norm Roche was the lone vote against the move, saying he did not believe all questions had been answered.
The other commissioners disagreed, saying the plan had been fully vetted over months of work.
"I believe it's time for the voters to express their opinion," Commissioner Karen Seel said.
The commission's decision to place Greenlight Pinellas on the ballot came after about three hours of comment from residents, public officials and business people on both sides of the issue.
Those who supported the decision cited the effects of such things as traffic congestion and pollution caused by so many cars on the roads.
Expanding the bus system, they said, would bring jobs to the county and make it easier for workers to get to jobs at all hours as well as making it easier for disabled riders and others to travel farther in less time than is possible under the current system.
Some, like Andrew Hayes of the Grand Central District Association in St. Petersburg, argued that the decision was important for the next generation and the future of Pinellas. Hayes urged the commissioners to take the "bold step" and let the voters decide.
Opponents, many members of the No Tax for Trax group, argued that they opposed a sales tax increase. Such an increase, they said, will make it less likely that people and businesses will locate in the county because they will not be able to afford to do so between the transit tax and other fees and taxes.
"Shame on you," Dr. David McKalip told commissioners. Sales taxes are regressive and will benefit the rich while "pretending to serve the public."
Commissioner Ken Welch said he was irked by some of the misrepresentations and accusations of corruption leveled by some of the opponents. The issue, Welch said, is one of the most important voters will ever make and the debate should be based on facts and not misinformation.