One year from now, Pinellas County commissioners could be debating the wording of a referendum on a new tax to pay for an overhauled transportation system.
Or that at least is Brad Miller's hope. As CEO of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, part of Miller's job is to ensure that what happened in Hillsborough two years ago, when voters rejected a similar tax, will not happen in Pinellas.
Supporters of redesigning Pinellas' transit system believe that will require presenting the county's voters with a detailed plan at the right moment. Last week, Miller proposed that the 1-cent sales tax, which could stabilize the agency's finances and pay for new bus routes and commuter rail, go before the public in November 2014.
"The planning is not done — the planning is under way — but we think it's important to set the date now so that over the next year we can focus the debate and the discussion about what should be in the plan or what are the priorities," Miller said.
In its nascent form, the plan includes a rethinking of the county's bus routes, many of which have not changed in about two decades. It also includes light rail — 24 miles of track stretching from downtown Clearwater to the Gateway area, and then south again to St. Petersburg and Tropicana Field. Cost estimates put the project between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion.
PSTA's board will not vote on the 2014 time line until January, Miller said, but a majority of its members have already declared their support.
Pinellas can't wait any longer than 2014, said Commissioner Janet Long, who sits on PSTA's board.
"We are falling further and further behind in terms of how we approach our public transportation system," she said, pointing to the Republican National Convention in August, when delayed buses left some delegates fuming.
For PSTA, postponing the vote beyond 2014 could spell financial disaster. Without the sales tax, which would replace the property tax that currently funds the agency, Miller expects to cut bus service by 20 percent.
Commissioner Karen Seel said she thinks it is unlikely the economy will recover quickly enough to make voters support a massive public project two years from now. The timing of the referendum and the ballot language are ultimately the commission's decision.
"I'm not sure I'm ready to take it to the public in 2014," she said. "It may still be premature from an economy perspective."
Two years gives PSTA and other supporters plenty of time to sell the idea, said Commissioner Susan Latvala, a PSTA board member. The agency has already hired the Tampa public relations firm Tucker Hall, and Miller said he expects to have a complete project plan before the commission one year from now.
Hillsborough "didn't have a viable plan," Latvala said. "They made a lot of mistakes. And we won't."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.