Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Pinellas likely to vote on sales tax for rail and bus service

Jefferson Mells sits with his arm around Deanna Lewis on a PSTA bus to downtown St. Petersburg last year. Supporters of the proposed one-cent sales tax increase say it is needed to pay for more bus routes and more frequent stops.

LEAH MILLIS | Times (2012)

Jefferson Mells sits with his arm around Deanna Lewis on a PSTA bus to downtown St. Petersburg last year. Supporters of the proposed one-cent sales tax increase say it is needed to pay for more bus routes and more frequent stops.

A sales tax increase to fund expanded bus service and light rail in Pinellas County seems destined for the November 2014 ballot.

On Wednesday, before a room packed with dozens of mass transit advocates and opponents, the county's transportation agency unanimously voted to ask the Pinellas County Commission to put the question to voters on Nov. 4, 2014.

Of the seven commissioners, five already have said they will support putting the referendum on the ballot. The vote came after nearly three hours of public comment and discussion among the agency's 15 members.

"This is just the first step," said Julie Bujalski, a PSTA board member and Dunedin city commissioner. "Nothing is in stone at this point. It's just about time that we focus and sum it up and make decisions."

The board has long discussed proposing a one-cent sales tax increase, which would raise the sales tax from seven to eight cents and generate about $120 million for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. It would replace the property tax that currently brings in $32 million in transit funding a year. Long-debated as a way to pay for a commuter light rail system and improved busing, the proposed tax increase has sparked passionate responses from both sides.

More than 100 people packed a meeting room in PSTA's headquarters Wednesday, filling every chair and lining walls. Many wore blue "Try Transit" stickers handed out by the Sierra Club in St. Petersburg. Others wore red "No tax for tracks" buttons.

Supporters said the sales tax increase is needed to pay for more bus routes and more frequent stops. Without it, PSTA executive director Brad Miller said, the agency will have to make deep cuts to busing. By 2015, he said, the agency will have an $8 million budget gap. And by 2016, he may have to cut bus service by 30 percent.

Mass transit advocates also championed the tax increase as a way to fund a proposed light rail system — 24 miles of track stretching from downtown Clearwater to the Gateway area, and then south again to St. Petersburg and Tropicana Field — that is still in development.

"We are not opposed to a good idea even if it may cost more," said Jim Dickson, co-chair of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee.

"Bottleneck and gridlock are not efficient and cost effective," he said. "It is not good for business, it's not good for our tourism industry, and it certainly is not good for our environment."

Opponents warned that public sentiment is against light rail, citing Hillsborough residents' rejection of a tax hike for commuter rail two years ago.

"We all know that our grocery bills are up, our income is down," said Sharon Haske, a St. Petersburg resident and member of the South Pinellas 912 Patriots, a group aligned with the Tea Party movement.

Haske said she has seen other cities build mass transit systems that fail to reduce traffic, but successfully swallow millions in tax dollars.

"The only people that really make out in this are developers," she said. "Taxpayers don't."

A December poll sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay found that 60 percent of Pinellas residents said they would support using tax money for rail. Another 33 percent opposed it. The same poll found that a majority of Hillsborough residents would also back rail.

Some speakers said they were still waiting to be sold on the idea.

Keith Burnett, president of Suncoast Architecture & Engineering in Clearwater, predicted the referendum will fail if PSTA can't convince people who aren't already mass transit users that light rail will benefit them.

"If you want other people's money to be spent, you've got to sell the other people," he said. "You haven't done that yet."

Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel has said that she will vote against placing the tax increase question on the 2014 ballot, calling the timing "premature." And though he voted Wednesday to send the matter to the commission, Commissioner Norm Roche ultimately may not endorse the idea of putting the tax increase to a vote.

"I'm comfortable with the referendum timeline and will support it, provided that all pending questions are answered, all numbers and projections are realistic, and all facts are on the table," he wrote in an email. He said he doesn't think the project's current cost estimates are accurate.

The other five Pinellas commissioners have said they will vote to put the referendum on the 2014 ballot.

Pinellas likely to vote on sales tax for rail and bus service 01/23/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 12:11am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Rays' Evan Longoria: "We have all the belief in the world in here"

    Blogs

    The weekend sweep by Texas and four-game overall losing streak has some Rays fans - based on their tweets and emails - questioning the team's ability to make the playoffs and suggesting they might as well trade away their key parts.

  2. FWC: Fish away for invasive lionfish

    Water

    Times staff

    What could be better than fishing and helping save the Gulf of Mexico?

    Add prizes.

    Lionfish, originally from the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, are an invasive species in the Gulf of Mexico. [LARA CERRI  |  Times]
  3. Gerald McCoy cares too much about what you think of him

    The Heater

    Gerald McCoy is right. We are going to miss him when he's gone.

    Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is one of 16 players to record at least five sacks in each of the past five seasons. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
  4. Ronde Barber says comments about McCoy 'sensationalized'

    Blogs

    If anyone thinks Ronde Barber was throwing shade at Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, think again.

    "That anyone would assume I would say the best player on the defense isn’t a bad dude is irresponsible and sensationalizing a quote to serve their own means,'' Ronde Barber said.
  5. Nine years later, library attack victim Queena works at learning to walk again

    News

    Slowly, Queena Phu is learning the act of walking again through exercises in locomotion, strength and balance.

    Queena Phu of Tampa and prosecutor Rita Peters arrive at the Stay In Step Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center on Monday.
 Phu, 27, has endured a long road to recovery after suffering brain damage from a brutal attack that left her unable to walk, talk, see or eat on her own. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA  |   Times]