Sometimes a temporary step back prepares for a more confident step forward. That's certainly the case with the decision in Pinellas County to wait until at least 2012 for a referendum on a sales tax for light rail and other transit improvements. The struggling economic recovery makes a new tax a tough sell, particularly with Friday's announcement that the county's unemployment rate rose again in November to 12.4 percent. Pinellas officials need the time to get the details right and sell a transit plan, and now there also is an opportunity to explore whether a more coordinated regional effort would be the best approach.
A 25-member Pinellas transportation task force embraced a proposal last week to seek voter approval of a penny tax increase sometime in 2012 or 2013. That is a year or more later than an earlier plan that called for holding the vote in 2011. The task force correctly read the economy and the political environment, but it also smartly kept the focus on modernizing the transportation system. Creating faster and more convenient ways to move people and goods around is essential if Pinellas and Tampa Bay hope to remain competitive in this global economy. So the region needs to keep moving forward — and working closely together.
Last month's transit referendum defeat in Hillsborough was a setback for the entire area. Officials had worked for four years on a two-decade-old vision to build a light rail system between downtown, the airport and the University of South Florida. Linking Tampa's three major employment areas could have served as a catalyst for rail and broadening the region's economic base. But rail initiatives often are turned down by voters the first time out, and Hillsborough's defeat was a learning experience. The county put the measure on the ballot without first telling voters where the routes would go, how much rail would really cost or exactly when new lines would serve the outlying communities. Such a fuzzy plan would have been a hard sell even in better economic times.
The time line set by the Pinellas task force is more realistic about getting the details in order first. Officials expect to know by December 2011 where the light rail routes would go, months before any measure would go to voters. Pinellas also would have a better fix on the costs, and on how the county's system would tie into a regional mass-transit network. The transportation task force plans to stay active in the months ahead to help prepare for guiding a referendum to the ballot.
At the same time, Pinellas may help build a strong foundation for the region to collectively deal with transportation. That only makes sense given that tens of thousands of area residents cross county lines to work and shop every day. The transportation task force chairman, Karen Seel, who also chairs the Pinellas County Commission, said she and others want to explore whether Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco might hold a multicounty referendum on a transit package. Creating a vigorous regional organization to fund, manage and operate a seamless mass transit system throughout the area is an intriguing proposition that requires a discussion at the local and state level. Pinellas should keep its transit planning on track and encourage those broader discussions aimed at creating a regional consensus on a regional transit system.