The Pinellas County Commission is poised tonight to kick off one of the most important public debates in the county's history. Commissioners are expected to pass an ordinance calling for a 1 percent sales tax to significantly improve public transportation and ask voters to approve it in November 2014. Creating a modern transportation system that includes enhanced bus service and light rail is essential to the future of Pinellas County and the region, and now the challenge will be to sell this reasonable approach to voters.
Tampa Bay is the largest metro area without a robust mass transit system that includes rail, and that puts Pinellas and the region at a competitive disadvantage as it competes for new business and younger residents. Despite significant investment in expanding U.S. 19 and other major roads, the county remains clogged by traffic that reduces the quality of life and stifles economic investment. This long-range, methodical effort to build a transit system that more effectively moves consumers and workers will be a direct and indirect economic driver for decades that should create jobs and encourage smart development.
The Greenlight Pinellas proposal that county commissioners will vote to put on next year's general election ballot is a viable blueprint for transit. It is not cost-prohibitive, and its financial projections are conservative and have been reconfirmed by an independent third party. The plan calls for a 1 percent sales tax to pay for expanded bus service countywide and a 24-mile light rail system that would run from St. Petersburg to Clearwater. The sales tax would raise about $120 million a year and replace an existing property tax that brings in $32 million a year for transit, and a substantial portion of that sales tax revenue would come from tourists.
Pinellas will be in a better position to embrace the transit referendum than Hillsborough County was in 2010, when voters in that county defeated a referendum that included light rail. Hillsborough had not completed an alternative analysis study that reviewed various options, and its rail route and costs were in flux. Pinellas has long completed the alternative analysis study, the cost and route of the rail is much clearer — and a property tax would be eliminated when the sales tax starts being collected in January 2016. The economy in 2014 should be significantly better than it was in 2010, and the case for a more robust transit system is even clearer than it was then.
That doesn't mean Greenlight Pinellas will be an easy sale to voters. North of Clearwater, voters will have to be sold on the benefits of better bus service. In St. Petersburg, voters will have to be convinced that the best rail route into the downtown area is along Interstate 275. And there should be a more vigorous public discussion of the location of the rail stations and their design. It is likely that some stations could be enhanced by private developers interested in including them as part of their redevelopment efforts. All of these issues should be fully explained by referendum supporters, who must treat the proposal like they are selling it for the first time.
There is more detailed work to be done after tonight's commission vote. For example, the county and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will have to negotiate a separate agreement that clarifies who will pay for moving utilities along the transit route. But the commission vote to put the transit referendum on the 2014 ballot is a significant milestone, and it signals both how far Pinellas has come and how much work is left to be done.