Nobody can say Pasco County procrastinated on this one. The County Commission Tuesday morning kicked off a public debate about how to finance transportation improvements in advance of a referendum that is 11 years away.
Eleven years. Today's prekindergartners will be the region's newest drivers by the time this issue of a transportation surtax goes to Pasco County voters in 2020. Still, voter approval would mean those newly minted motorists soon would have other transportation options beyond crawling through highway congestion.
The surtax is an imperative element of the county's $9.3 billion long-range transportation plan, four-fifths of which is projected to come from local revenue including impact fees, gasoline taxes, a portion of the Penny for Pasco, developer payments and, if approved, the new transit surtax — a 1-cent-on-the-dollar increase in the sales tax. If approved, the surtax could produce $1 billion in new revenue through 2035.
Tuesday, commissioners approved a resolution asking the state Legislature for permission to hold the referendum and to collect the additional sales tax, a provision that is now permissible only in Florida counties with charter governments. Among the members of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota counties are charter governments, but Manatee, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus are not.
Two key but traditionally anti-tax members of Pasco's legislation delegation, Sen. Mike Fasano and Rep. Will Weatherford, told the Times on Monday they didn't anticipate problems with the proposed legislation. Weatherford characterized it as a fairness issue because some counties already have the authority to hold a referendum and levy the tax. Fasano advocated a need for more local contributions in light of downward projections for the statewide gas tax collections that finance Florida's transportation trust fund.
Though the referendum date could change, it is pushed out until 2020 so as not to conflict with a 2014 vote on renewing the Penny for Pasco and because the proposed light rail system connecting the region is not expected to be operational until later next decade. More imminent public debates are expected in Hillsborough and Pinellas, where voters could consider similar referendums over the next three years.
In Pasco, the county's $1 billion long-range mass transit plan includes a north-south light rail line connecting the Wiregrass area of Wesley Chapel to Tampa, premium bus service along the State Road 54/56 corridor and north-south express buses along U.S. 19, Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75.
Commissioner Michael Cox, who just returned from a tour of the light rail system in Charlotte, N.C., correctly noted mass transit goes hand in hand with economic development. He said the tax base around one transit stop in North Carolina grew from $26 million to $1.2 billion because of the redevelopment that followed.
It is the same message TBARTA delivered to commissioners earlier this year. Economic competitiveness hinges on the success of mass transit. The Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan statistical area, which includes Pasco County, is the nation's 20th largest region and the only one of the top 30 without a rail transit system. And the region is the fourth-highest in the country in terms of household expenses dedicated to transportation costs.
Down the road, when the public debate over the proposed surtax starts in earnest, voters should consider how much they're willing to invest in better access to jobs, improved economic development and even cutting their own household spending.