Tampa Bay will have to run over Gov. Rick Scott to join the 21st century and build a modern transit system. The governor's veto of a local bill tied to a proposed Pinellas project reflects his blind opposition to rail and apparent fear that voters might actually approve it. Pinellas should proceed with fine-tuning a thoughtful proposal to expand bus service and build light rail — and trust local voters to make the right decision.
Transportation experts and elected officials are just beginning to engage the public in a discussion about a plan to significantly expand the Pinellas bus system and build a 24-mile light rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Voters would be asked in 2013 or 2014 to approve a 1 cent sales tax to pay for the improvements, and the existing property tax dedicated to the bus system would go away. There is a good argument that at least part of the property tax should be kept to ensure the transit plan is ambitious enough to be successful, but the project would be an easier sell politically as a tax swap.
Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, sponsored the legislation that would have guaranteed the swap by requiring the repeal of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority property tax if voters approve the sales tax increase and the money is used for the project. Hooper says he does not support the transit plan and was only trying to prevent collection of both a sales tax and the property tax. But even that conservative approach wasn't enough for three tea party-influenced Republicans who voted against it, Reps. Larry Ahern and Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Richard Corcoran of New Port Richey, whose district includes parts of North Pinellas. Scott vetoed HB 865 late Friday and wrote that he feared the legislation might be used by transit supporters to help pass the voter referendum. Horrors.
It's hard to keep track of the Republican governor's positions on rail. He foolishly killed high speed rail from Tampa to Orlando that would have been financed by the federal government, a political punch to the Obama administration. Then he allowed the less defensible SunRail commuter rail project in the Orlando area to move forward, which was strongly supported by influential Central Florida Republicans such as House Speaker Dean Cannon. That project will cost the state millions, but at the time Scott noted it had broad local support and local taxpayers would help pay for it.
Yet Scott has attempted to derail the Pinellas transit project before much of the community has focused on it. The governor's veto came the same week that his transportation secretary visited the Tampa Bay Times editorial board and claimed the administration isn't unilaterally opposed to rail. Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said highway corridors will leave room for rail lines, and he said local communities will have to support specific rail projects and help pay for them. "Referendums are a way to go to get these things going,'' he said.
They just have to get going without any help from the governor. The Pinellas transit project can proceed without the legislation that Scott vetoed, and the need for it is obvious as the bus system announced on Monday another record monthly ridership. A majority of the Pinellas County Commission has indicated they are willing to schedule a transit tax referendum at some point. Even those commissioners who oppose rail have more faith in the voters than Scott.