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Politics reroutes PSTA proposal

Local officials expected a rubber stamp when they proposed an expansion of the board that oversees the county transportation authority.

What they got is a lesson in legislative politics.

St. Petersburg City Council members and Pinellas County commissioners now are accusing state lawmakers of blocking the first step necessary to make sweeping changes to the region's mass transit system.

"The membership of the board was just the first step," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "If we can't even get past that point, the future looks pretty bleak."

But legislators and others say the city and county are looking for a back-door way to make the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority into a countywide organization. That would force the seven communities that aren't members of the PSTA taxing district to suddenly be added to the tax rolls.

"It would double the amount we pay, if not triple," said Ward Friszolowski, mayor of St. Pete Beach, one of the seven exempt communities, "without changing any of the service we receive."

The movement to change the composition of the board of the PSTA started nearly two years ago. The proposal would add four new members to the 11-member board: one more from the St. Petersburg City Council and three more county commissioners.

City and county officials said the change is needed to better reflect all county residents and PSTA customers.

Also, many PSTA board members hope to expand bus lines or add a light rail system. The authority will need significant county and city support to achieve these expensive and far-reaching goals, said Roger Sweeney, PSTA executive director.

"At some point in time, the county's going to have to broaden its transportation system," he said.

In a rare show of unity, the proposal was approved by both the St. Petersburg City Council and the County Commission, as well as the Charter Review Commission, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and several others.

But because the PSTA was created by a special act of the Legislature, any changes must first be approved in Tallahassee.

State Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, the chairman of the transportation committee, agreed to sponsor a bill. But the day before a public hearing to discuss it, Sebesta decided to withdraw.

Sebesta could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But Sweeney said Sebesta told him there was too much negative reaction for him to proceed.

One of the most strident opponents was Sen. Dennis Jones, a Republican who lives in Treasure Island, which is also exempt from the PSTA taxing district.

The other communities that have not joined the authority are Belleair Shore, Belleair Beach, Kenneth City, unincorporated South Pasadena and Tierra Verde.

Some cities contract with PSTA to provide a trolley service. Others don't want the lines stopping in their towns.

Jones said he did not want to see the Legislature move forward without more input. "I just feel that these communities need the opportunity to have their voices heard," he said. Jones also blocked a proposal last year that would have created a countywide referendum on expanding the PSTA taxing district to include all Pinellas communities.

Now county and city officials are left stymied. They say it's unfair to allow such a small segment of the county's population to impede the needs of the rest. But without the help of the Legislature, there is little they can do.

"Transportation is an issue that affects the entire county," said St. Petersburg City Council member Virginia Littrell. "The majority wins the day, not the small percentage that says we don't want to pay more."

Carrie Johnson can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

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