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PSTA hires consultants to double-check transit plan costs

Published Sep. 26, 2013

Amid questions from business leaders about whether the financial assumptions in Pinellas' transit plans are sound, the county transit agency has hired consultants to review the numbers.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board approved a $270,000 contract with a Kansas City engineering company called HNTB and Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors. They will report their findings at a board meeting next month.

Two years have passed since county officials debuted a report by Jacobs Engineering that cost $4 million to produce, and was paid for with state and federal grants. The report examined what would happen if Pinellas added a penny to its sales tax — a proposal that the County Commission is expected to put on the ballot in 2014.

Its authors estimated the penny would raise $128 million, enough to cover the annual local costs of light rail and bus service, which would come to about $126 million.

They predicted that transportation projects would create more than 67,000 jobs over 30 years, with 48,500 jobs in the construction industry. About $4.2 billion would be pumped into the county's economy, the report's authors estimated, offering a return of $2.50 for every dollar spent.

Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, said at a Greenlight Pinellas meeting on Wednesday that some business leaders question whether those numbers are still valid.

"One of the things that kept coming back was, how do we know these numbers are right? How are we going to guarantee that to the public?" he said, adding that the consultants can lend a "good housekeeping seal of approval" to the project.

The county's transit agency began soliciting bids from engineering firms in April, before the business community expressed concern. Last month, HNTB was hired to review and update the cost of buying new vehicles, as well as replacing and maintaining them as they age. Ernst & Young is examining the county's economic assumptions — looking at inflation and how much grant money can reasonably be expected — and how quickly it can all be built. The entire PSTA board is scheduled to vote on the transit plan Nov. 20 and then submit it to the County Commission, which is set to vote on whether to put it on the ballot on Dec. 10.

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