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Skepticism greets Pasco transit-tax idea

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County doesn't start collecting its renewed Penny for Pasco sales tax until Jan. 1, but transportation planners already are looking 10 years ahead to determine if more small change can return big dividends.

The plan — theoretical at this point — is to cease paying for road improvements with Penny for Pasco after 2024 and to seek a separate 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax exclusively for transportation, including transit.

The strategy is included in the county's 2040 transportation plan, adopted unanimously by county commissioners and city officials sitting as the Metropolitan Planning Organization earlier this month. It calls for $1.6 billion in new sales tax revenue, or nearly a quarter of the $6.65 billion in local money for future roads and transit. The tax would require voter approval, something that has been difficult to achieve in neighboring counties. Voters rejected similar sales tax plans in Pinellas and Polk counties in November, four years after Hillsborough County voters did likewise. Officials plan to try again in Hillsborough in 2016.

If the scenario plays out, the county would set aside $100 million for transit on U.S. 19 and $480 million for transit on the State Road 54/56 corridor. Transit, however, does not exclusively mean buses. The money could be used to build additional highway lanes for buses or commuters in high-occupancy vehicles.

With the Penny for Pasco that begins Jan. 1, the county is projected to receive $226 million, or 45 percent of the proceeds, over the next 10 years, of which $90 million is targeted for road improvements. The new tax plan, as presented by staffers and the county's transportation consultant to the MPO, would replace the Penny for Pasco when it expires in 2024.

Under that scenario, however, the Pasco School District and the six cities could lose their portion of the current sales tax, as would the other beneficiaries of the county's share — economic development, land preservation and public safety. Or, commissioners and School Board members could consider other alternatives like renewing the Penny for Pasco at a half-cent or earmarking the money formerly targeted for roads for other purposes, such as parks and libraries.

"Well, good luck,'' said Ray Gadd, deputy superintendent for the school district and one of the architects of the original Penny for Pasco campaign in 2004. "I think it was pretty shortsighted of them not to involve the school district in their plan.''

Gadd said it is likely the school district still will require Penny for Pasco dollars after 2024. The district is expected to receive $226 million over the next 10 years from the renewed penny.

"I can only speculate. But from a long-term planning perspective, we certainly would be interested in renewing the penny, given the growth indicated there was a need for it. What I would suggest to the School Board, ultimately, is that working in concert with the county makes sense. That's what's been successful for us.''

The long-term transit tax idea also comes on the heels of the first-ever appropriation of Penny for Pasco money for economic development — $45 million over the next 10 years — that Pasco Economic Development Council president John Hagen recently characterized as a "gift we can get every decade if we spend it wisely.'' Land preservation and public safety also will receive $45 million.

At the MPO meeting, the transit-tax plan drew skepticism from commissioners Mike Moore and Jack Mariano.

"Half the (Penny for Pasco) money goes to schools. Have you talked to them?'' Mariano asked the road planners. "I suggest you consider that.''

"In my opinion, the Penny for Pasco is not going away,'' said Moore, pointing to the support of 70 percent of the voters who voted to renew the tax in 2012.

Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein said the county already has a Plan B if the transit tax looks politically improbable. The county would renew Penny for Pasco and keep using a share of it for transportation, but scale back regional transit investments on the Suncoast Parkway, SR 54/56, U.S. 19, Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Interstate 75.

Other MPO members cautioned that the long-range transportation plan is simply a planning tool that can be amended.

"When someone sees this document, they're fearful that's obviously going to happen,'' said Commissioner Ted Schrader. "That's not necessarily true.''

The federally mandated long-range plan is updated every five years and subject to amendments as needed.

"I'd like to get that (transit tax) amended right out of there,'' said Moore.