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A Pinellas light rail system could cost as much as $7.4 billion

Voters could be asked next year to raise the sales tax to build a multibillion-dollar light-rail system and to double bus service in Pinellas County.

A panel of local officials has worked for several months to fashion a plan. The likely favored option: a 1 percent tax increase on the 2010 ballot.

"It is the only viable funding source out there to move forward with light rail," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a member of the panel that is working through the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

The cost to build rail and double bus service would be $3.8 billion to $7.4 billion, according to estimates provided to County Commissioner Karen Seel. Running the rail and bus services could cost $2.7 billion over 25 years.

The proposal matches a sales tax effort in Hills­borough County. Both ideas dovetail with the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority's regional transit efforts.

In Pinellas, however, the plan is more than a step behind Hills­borough, and faces more uncertainty among county commissioners. The commission must approve placing the tax increase on the ballot.

The transit panel — which includes St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner and a variety of private and public sector officials — will meet in May, potentially to decide the exact proposal to push.

But Seel, who also sits on the panel, expressed some skepticism and suggested a 2012 vote may be more likely in Pinellas.

Aside from settling routes — a big hurdle, Seel said — the elected commission would be debating a tax increase in a recession. One option to sweeten the proposal would be cutting the $34 million the PSTA currently receives from property taxes. The sales tax would produce almost four times as much a year, though federal money also will be needed to pay the overall costs.

"Whether we want it to play into the discussion or not, it will be because ultimately our citizens will have to decide this," said Pinellas County Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who wants proof there's public demand to support rail service.

Hillsborough County commissioners this month directed staffers to write language for a 2010 referendum on a one-cent sales tax to pay for rail and expanded bus service.

That system, along with one in Pinellas County, would be part of a larger regional rail and express bus network that ultimately could run from Citrus County to Sarasota County.

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, known as TBARTA, will release its master plan for the network Friday. Last year, TBARTA and bay area officials visited Charlotte, Denver and Dallas, where referendums added sales taxes for light rail.

The spine of the area network would connect Pinellas and Hillsborough, said Frank Hibbard, mayor of Clearwater and vice chairman of TBARTA.

TBARTA's draft plans show the connection via the Howard Frankland bridge as well as in a loop from downtown St. Petersburg to Clearwater, Safety Harbor, Oldsmar and Tampa.

With Hillsborough and Pinellas as the nucleus of the larger system, it makes sense for the two counties to vote on a tax at the same time, Hibbard said.

A March 2008 survey of 500 residents in the counties found that 61 percent of Pinellas respondents believe the county needs rail and more mass transit to relieve congestion. In Hills­borough, 65 percent of respondents favored rail and mass transit.

"Why not do it in one fell swoop?" Hibbard asked.

Pinellas voters have repeatedly approved tax increases for construction and schools. But other interest groups want money, too. Until the budget picture clears this summer, it's too early to advance rail, Commissioner Susan Latvala said.

"What I don't want to see happen is whoever gets out there first puts theirs on the ballot and then the public finds out about other needs as well," she said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

A Pinellas light rail system could cost as much as $7.4 billion 04/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 23, 2009 8:28am]

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