Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved putting a question on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot that would ask residents whether they would pay a higher sales tax to support a major overhaul of the transportation system.
Five of the seven commissioners voted to approve putting the referendum on the ballot, marking the beginning of a nearly two-year countdown before the issue comes before voters. Commissioner Norm Roche was the only member of the board to vote against the measure.
The vote followed about three hours of debate during which 26 people spoke in favor of putting it on the ballot, and 14 were opposed.
"The time has come," said Commissioner Karen Seel, who for months has advocated for the vote to be held in 2015. But on Tuesday, she joined the majority of her colleagues in approving a 2014 time line.
She said she also has reason to believe that Hillsborough County may catch up.
"I have heard that there may be some interest in Hillsborough County to put a referendum on the ballot in 2014," she said.
After the meeting, Seel said that Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe intends to revive debate over a sales tax referendum. A ballot question similar to the one Pinellas County plans to put before voters failed in Hillsborough in 2010, when 58 percent of voters rejected it.
Sharpe has scheduled a discussion at the next Hillsborough County Commission meeting March 20 on how his government is going to address growing transportation needs. He said his goal is to craft something that could also be put to voters in 2014, though he stopped short of saying it would include a proposal to pay for rail.
"We need to have an adult conversation about transportation in our region," Sharpe said. "But I think we need to be responsible and not talk about funding some grand rail system that is going to be 26 miles. To me, we need to be talking about what is tangible."
Though Tuesday's vote represents an important decision for the Pinellas commission, it is not the final word. To secure a place for the referendum on the 2014 ballot, the commission will have to approve ballot language and pass an ordinance several months before the vote.
The referendum would ask residents to vote on whether to raise the county's sales tax by up to 1 cent — potentially lifting it from 7 to 8 cents to pay for major changes to the public transportation system. The sales tax, which would bring in about $128 million, would replace the property tax that currently funds the county's transit agency, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Over the next 20 months, transit officials intend to complete their study of the county's bus system, finish the proposed 24-mile light-rail route and try to win public support for a plan that many residents and business owners are only vaguely aware of.
They will have help from at least two groups, the Suncoast Sierra Club and Connect Tampa Bay, nonprofits that are starting to mount campaigns to motivate residents who support mass transit and persuade those who are open to the idea.
A poll sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay that surveyed Hillsborough and Pinellas residents in December suggested there is support for spending on light rail. Asked whether they would support using tax money to "bring light rail mass transit to parts of the Tampa Bay area," 56 percent of those surveyed in Hillsborough and 60 percent in Pinellas said yes.
Opponents have also organized and are seeking an injunction to prevent four commissioners — Ken Welch, Karen Seel, John Morroni and Susan Latvala — from voting on new initiatives, including the transit sales tax referendum, until a term-limits lawsuit is resolved.
Barbara Haselden, a vocal opponent of the proposed sales tax increase and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she objects to a vote in 2014 because she does not trust the county's transit agency to tell residents the truth about the plan's cost. The PSTA has hired TuckerHall, a Tampa-based public relations firm, to brand and disseminate the plan, worsening her concern that voters will be given only facts supporting the referendum.
"Where is our PR firm? How will the public hear the other side?" she said.
Roche said he was voting against putting the referendum on the ballot because PSTA's current plan is too vague.
"I'm a cart-behind-the-horse kind of person," he said, adding that the commission has until August 2014 to put the referendum on the ballot, giving it time to wait for a detailed proposal.
Explaining her decision to support a 2014 deadline, Seel held up a 1983 article from the Clearwater Sun about efforts in Pinellas County, led by her father, then-chairman of the PSTA, to develop a rail system. Her son, Brian Seel, is one of the founding members of an advocacy group that supports putting the transit sales tax on the ballot in 2014.
"I'm between father and son," she said. "This is my leap of faith."
Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report.