As the economy recovers in Pasco County and throughout Tampa Bay, the pressure to provide the roads and services to handle new development will return after years of being tamped down by the recession. The rising cost of accommodating growth in Pasco's southern and western corridors should not be borne exclusively by motorists and property owners paying higher taxes. Instead, the county should devise more equitable financing that would require developers to fairly share the increasing expense of building and maintaining local roads.
Pasco County commissioners on Tuesday got their first look at a proposal to increase the local option gasoline tax and approve an accompanying transportation property tax to raise up to $8 million annually for road construction and maintenance. The debate, which ended with no commission consensus, should have included requiring more contributions from developers as well. It's reasonable to raise the gas tax, but not without more fairly spreading the burdens of paying for growth.
Pasco abandoned uniform transportation impact fees in 2011 in favor of a sliding scale of so-called mobility fees that vary by location within the county. To drive jobs and population growth to the State Road 54/56 and U.S. 19 corridors, the county waives fees for such developments as employment centers and hotels, and assesses less expensive fees for new housing in those locations. The discounts, however, come with an increasing price tag. Road construction costs are up 20 percent over 2011, and planners now say the county will grow faster than projected, with Pasco's population nearly doubling over the next 25 years. To finance its long-term road network, the county said it needs a minimum of $5 million in additional money annually through 2040 and another $3 million a year to better maintain existing and future highways.
State law gives counties the option of increasing their local gasoline tax by up to 5 cents per gallon for road expenses. Twenty-eight of Florida's 67 counties, including Hernando, charge all or a portion of the local tax. Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties do not. A year ago, Pasco commissioners failed to reach the required four votes to increase the gas tax, and only three commissioners voiced strong support for it this week.
Commissioners correctly asked about reducing the geographic areas receiving the fee discount and about using reserves to buy road maintenance equipment. The search for alternatives is smart, but the focus remains too narrow. Local consumers already are underwriting $136 million worth of transportation and economic development expenses over the next 10 years through the renewed Penny for Pasco sales tax. Pasco is smart to look for more revenue to help pay for growth, but the burden should be spread more fairly and not be entirely on the backs of drivers and property owners.