The effort to build a modern transportation system can take another positive turn Tuesday when the Pinellas County Commission decides whether to place a proposed transit tax on the November 2014 ballot. Pinellas cannot afford to wait any longer to ask voters to move forward with building a transit system that will grow the economy and make the traffic-clogged county a more attractive place to live and work.
The case for a better transit system should be obvious. The Tampa Bay region is the last major metro area without a vigorous transit system that includes light rail. Despite huge public investments in widening U.S. 19, Ulmerton Road and other major roads, traffic remains one of Pinellas' major challenges. Although some important road projects are in the pipeline, there isn't enough land or money to continue to build new roads and keep widening old ones forever. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has set bus ridership records for 15 straight months even with service that is not nearly as frequent as in other major metro areas.
Commissioners will vote Tuesday to hold a place on the November 2014 ballot for the transit referendum and approve the exact language later. Voters would be asked to approve a 1-cent sales tax to pay for expanded bus service and a 24-mile light rail line with 16 stations between downtown St. Petersburg and 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. It is a viable plan that deserves a full-throated public conversation and serious consideration by the voters.
Some skeptics question whether a transit referendum will fare any better in Pinellas than it did in Hillsborough, where voters rejected a sales tax increase to pay for better bus service and light rail in 2010. But Pinellas already is much further along than Hillsborough was on the day of its vote. Hillsborough had not completed an important alternative analysis study that reviewed various options; Pinellas' study is finished. Hillsborough did not have its rail route or cost pinned down; Pinellas' route for rail and its cost are clearer. While Hillsborough's proposal called for only a sales tax increase, the sales tax increase in Pinellas would be partially offset by the elimination of the property tax now devoted to transit.
Other critics suggest it would be better for Pinellas to wait beyond 2014 for a voter referendum because the economy is still recovering. Pinellas already has waited decades too long to tackle this issue. Even in the midst of the recession and a national backlash by conservative voters, the voters in the city of Tampa approved the Hillsborough transit plan. While it is difficult to predict what the economy will look like in November 2014, the trends now are positive and the political mood is far different than 2010. There is no reason to wait.
Pinellas commissioners should endorse the transit referendum on Tuesday and set the stage for a vigorous public discussion about the importance of this investment in the county's future.