Friday, December 15, 2017
News Roundup

Pinellas transit tax question swaps out term 'light rail' for 'passenger rail'

Voters asked next November whether to approve a sales tax increase to pay for expanded bus and rail service are likely to see a ballot that doesn't mention the referendum's two most debated words: "light rail."

Instead, language proposed by the Pinellas County attorney, as well as wording suggested by the transit authority, refer to a "passenger rail service" — a broader term that could include light rail. The idea, according to lawyers for the county and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, was not to dodge the politics surrounding the term light rail, but to keep all options open.

"The reason we had done that was just not to limit the future types of rail that might be available," said Alan Zimmet, an attorney for PSTA. "Who knows what technology will bring, there may be some other methodologies available years ahead that they could take advantage of."

The proposed language still could be tweaked in the weeks leading up to the commission's final vote on Dec. 10, when they're expected to approve the wording. But there's little debate about its basic outline.

As currently written, the language asks voters to vote for or against raising the sales tax by 1 percent, beginning Jan. 1, 2016, to pay for countywide transit improvements, including expanded bus service, bus rapid transit, and rail. It mentions "regional connections," an allusion to the bus routes PSTA hopes to run between Pinellas and Tampa seven days a week, as well as aspirational rail service to Tampa someday.

"It's very clear," said Kevin Thurman, director of Connect Tampa Bay, a transit advocacy group. Confusion over the use of "passenger rail," is unlikely, he said; if anything, voters could trip over the phrase bus rapid transit, an industry term for express buses.

"We have a whole year to educate people as to what it is, whether they call it passenger rail or light rail," said Barbara Haselden, a rail opponent and member of the South Pinellas 9-12 tea party group.

There already are several recommendations to change the language, one of which comes from PSTA. CEO Brad Miller said he'd like to see the word "local" before passenger rail to eliminate the chance of voters confusing it with the failed plans to build high speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. Many transit advocates believe that a large number of Hillsborough voters rejected a similar referendum in 2010 because they had the proposal mixed-up with high speed rail.

The most recent version of the Pinellas ballot language bears little resemblance to what Hillsborough voters saw three years ago. Though critics have derided Hillsborough's transit expansion as vague, in some ways, the wording on the ballot was more specific than what Pinellas is proposing. There, the ballot question assured voters that an "independent oversight committee" would monitor the tax revenue spending, 75 percent of which would go to transit improvements, with the remaining 25 percent reserved for roads and other projects.

Pinellas commissioner Janet Long said she preferred PSTA's version of the ballot language to the one proposed by the county attorney, which mentions that the tax would remain in place until the County Commission decided to repeal or reduce it.

"I sit on PSTA and we've been working really hard to make sure the ballot language is simple, and to the point. That's how I want to leave it," she said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

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