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Hillsborough rail defeat reverberates in Pinellas

Hillsborough voters' resounding rejection of a sales tax for light rail has forced Pinellas officials to rethink their strategy for bringing trains here.

Supporters in Pinellas hoped to use the passage of a 1-cent sales tax in Hillsborough as a springboard for a similar measure as early as next year. Instead, 58 percent of Hillsborough voters rejected it.

"It knocks a wind out of our sails — that wasn't even competitive in Hillsborough County," said County Commissioner Neil Brickfield.

A task force of Pinellas business leaders and officeholders will meet Nov. 15 to decide what to do next, including whether to delay a decision. The group ultimately will make a recommendation to the Pinellas County Commission, where a majority vote is needed to put a sales tax increase on a ballot.

"I would probably not be a big supporter for going out for a rail vote in Pinellas without a tax in Hillsborough," said task force member Alan Bomstein, a Clearwater contractor.

The Hillsborough defeat resolves two issues the Pinellas task force had been debating, said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.

To make it more palatable to voters, the county needs to reduce or eliminate the property tax paid to Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. The swap to a sales tax also could be necessary for the commission to approve a ballot measure.

The rub, however, is that some transit planners say the financials won't work without keeping both taxes.

Pinellas also needs to finish a major study of proposed routes before taking the issue to voters.

In Hillsborough, the absence of detailed routes played into voters' dissatisfaction, said Ronnie Duncan, who is chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. No one will buy something without knowing what they're getting, he said.

"We're still on the same track, in my view," said Welch, a member of the transportation task force. "I think the key difference is that we will have a plan in place to present to voters."

Lobbyist and lawyer Ed Armstrong wasn't as optimistic. He suggested the disappointing outcome in Hills­borough might mean a vote needs to wait for better economic times.

While the defeat was disappointing, Duncan noted that rail referendums often fail on their first try.

A regional approach with sales tax measures in Hillsborough and Pinellas in 2012 may still be an option, he said. But it would again mix a local sales tax referendum into an election with national politics.

A toxic reaction to government spending spilled over to the Hillsborough vote.

Tuesday's election also made it tougher to win over a majority of the Pinellas commission.

Voters ousted County Commissioner Calvin Harris, a rail supporter, in favor of antitax candidate Norm Roche.

Harris advocated for it as part of plan that included a possible new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in mid Pinellas.

"I think it is doable in Pinellas if the groundwork is done correctly. You don't have so much organized opposition in Pinellas like you had in Hills­borough," Harris said, noting the county's previous support of taxes for construction projects and teacher pay increases.

Roche said late Tuesday he's not against the idea of rail on its own, but he has yet to see legitimate documentation to back up the need for trains before bus service is improved. He has opposed increasing the sales tax.

"It's certainly not helpful," Welch said of Roche's election. "But I think from my perspective I haven't heard Norm say he's totally opposed to light rail. I just look forward to having some dialogue with him during our meetings and discussions."

Roche will join Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Brickfield, providing at least three members who are reluctant to move forward with rail and a tax increase.

Bostock called the Hillsborough vote a caution, but not a setback to improving services. She said the county needs to focus more on planning and improving its existing transit system.

"Rushing out to build a very expensive rail system at this point is not something that I think the citizens of Pinellas want," Bostock said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Inside

Hillsborough transit tax supporters will study the failed vote to plan their next steps. 4B

Hillsborough rail defeat reverberates in Pinellas 11/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 10:02pm]
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