Plans to let Pinellas County residents vote on a sales tax for light rail were delayed by at least a year Monday as fallout from the failed measure in Hillsborough County drifted across the bay.
A 25-member transportation task force endorsed a plan to seek voter approval of a penny sales tax no earlier than the spring of 2012 and no later than 2013. Its members also voted to seek a joint venture with Pasco and Hillsborough counties, but not to require it so Pinellas can go it alone if necessary.
For a task force that was eyeing a 2011 ballot measure, Monday's vote to wait further confirmed the new political landscape. On Nov. 2, Hillsborough residents rejected a 1-cent sales tax that would have, among other things, helped finance a light rail system.
"(The defeat in Hillsborough) definitely quelled any enthusiasm for moving toward any date before 2012," said Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, who chairs the task force. "To be honest, I don't think it would pass today in Pinellas County."
Seel and other board members blamed the economy, saying it needed to improve before voters would get on board with a sales tax. But evidence of political considerations were plainly evident as more than a dozen residents identifying themselves with local tea party groups attended the meeting. They say rail projects represent wasteful government spending and wouldn't be supported by the car-driving culture of Tampa Bay.
"We are strengthening all our opposition efforts by monitoring the actions of all committees related to this issue," said Barbara Haselden, an organizer with South Pinellas 912 Patriots. "We will aggressively fight local rail."
Seel and many task force members say the lesson they learned from Hillsborough is that officials there rushed the ballot measure before the routes, station locations and finances were determined. A crucial study that will answer many of those questions in Pinellas won't be finished until December 2011. That timing persuaded the board to wait until 2012.
In that time, the task force decided, officials could work to get ballot measures before voters in Hillsborough and Pasco as well. If passed in those counties, the taxes would finance a regional system rather than one limited to Pinellas.
Board member Craig Sher, executive chairman of the Sembler Co., said Hillsborough's involvement is vital.
"It's time we act regionally, rather than just talk about it," Sher said. "To raise a penny sales tax and build a train system to nowhere troubles me. We need Hillsborough to make this work."
Sher tried to make Hillsborough's involvement a requirement, an idea rejected by other board members.
"I'm all for regional cooperation," said R.B. Johnson, the mayor of Indian Rocks Beach and the chairman of the county's transit authority. "But I don't want to be held hostage by Hillsborough if it decides it doesn't want rail."
"(Pinellas) should be able to go forward without having to solve the political climate in Hillsborough," said Cathy Harrelson of the Suncoast Sierra Club.
Board members ruled out approving a gas tax of up to 5 cents that would raise $15 million a year and help finance the county's transit system. The move failed in part because some board members fretted it could dampen enthusiasm for rail.
"If you want to lose public support, the gas tax is the way to do that," said Ed Smolik, security director for Mease Dunedin and Countryside Hospitals.
Seel said the County Commission will vote on the task force's recommendation in January. A separate vote would be needed to put the proposal on the ballot.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]