Pinellas County commissioners took another important step forward Tuesday toward significantly improving mass transit in the traffic-clogged county. The commissioners embraced language for a 2014 referendum that will be clear, concise and correct so voters will be certain what they are deciding. A public hearing on the referendum will be held in December, and then transit supporters will have 11 months to sell the Greenlight Pinellas plan as one of the keys to ensuring the county is a more attractive place to live and work.
The plan calls for a 1 percent sales tax to pay for expanded bus service countywide and a light rail system that would run from St. Petersburg to Clearwater. The property tax now allocated to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would be repealed and replaced by the sales tax. Tampa Bay is the largest metro area without a significant mass transit system, and those systems are critical to attracting business, jobs and the younger residents who expect those systems in vibrant urban communities.
Among the commission's smart decisions: The referendum would be in November 2014, but the sales tax would not be collected until January 2016. That gives PSTA time to abolish its property tax so taxpayers will not be paying both transit taxes even for a short time. The referendum language clearly says voters are considering a 1 percent sales tax instead "of up to 1 percent'' to avoid confusion. In future decades, the commission could reduce the tax rate if less money is needed for operating the system. The commission also made clear that all of the tax money will pass directly to the PSTA, which will have all of the financial responsibility for building and maintaining the system.
As Commissioners Janet Long and Susan Latvala pointed out, the final wording of the referendum should be as simple and as straightforward as possible. In that vein, they should consider substituting "local rail" for "passenger rail,'' which could be confusing and conjures images of Amtrak passenger trains or the high-speed rail system that Gov. Rick Scott rejected.
Even with clear referendum language and a sound financial plan, transit supporters will have to vigorously sell the proposal to voters and be clear in their answers. That wasn't always the case Tuesday. Every commissioner did not have the PSTA's proposed ballot language, and PSTA CEO Brad Miller's answer about money allocated toward the 16 rail stations was fuzzy. More frustrating were the misleading claims by Commissioner Norm Roche, who signaled how transit opponents may fight the referendum by misrepresenting state law, musing about unanticipated costs and contending the federal government never will help pay for the project.
The commission is headed in the right direction on the referendum wording. The bigger challenge will be to sell voters on the merits of the plan and answer the misinformation opponents will be sure to spread.