ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas County Commission is inching closer to choosing a way to pay for more than $400 million worth of transportation projects, with three of the seven commissioners saying they are leaning toward a 2020 sales tax referendum as the preferred approach.
Officials this year have taken part in numerous meetings and discussions that explored the county’s transportation needs and evaluated options to pay for them. They are expected to make a decision in the coming months, following additional briefings from county administrator Barry Burton.
Commissioners Ken Welch, Dave Eggers and Pat Gerard told the Tampa Bay Times they believe a sales tax is emerging as the best option to pay for the county’s needs. Their colleagues Charlie Justice, Janet Long, Kathleen Peters and Karen Seel said all options are on the table and they need more information before they decide.
Conversations about how to fix the county’s traffic jams and expand its threadbare transit system have lingered for decades. But the county took a renewed interest in the topic this year, starting with a funding workshop in January, just two months after residents in neighboring Hillsborough County approved a one-percent sales tax increase to pay for transportation projects.
“I wanted it to be an open conversation without a preconceived fixation on a particular solution,” Burton said.
Local transportation leaders warned that the county’s transportation trust fund will hit zero in fiscal year 2022. Additional revenue sources would be needed to maintain existing services. Even more would be needed to pursue new projects.
But in order to decide what funding option is the best for Pinellas, commissioners said it was important to first identify the county’s needs.
Burton has put together a presentation for the public and local officials that focuses on reducing congestion, improving safety and enhancing transit. His proposed project list includes:
- $35 million to sync stoplight timing along major corridors.
- $49 million for intersections, including more right- and left-turn lanes.
- $50 million for safety projects, such as crosswalks with flashing beacons.
- $40 million to install streetlights along major streets to reduce night-time crashes.
- $73 million to fill 120 miles of sidewalk gaps.
- $21 million to buy 29 buses for additional transit service along U.S. 19 S, Roosevelt Blvd/East Bay Drive and U.S. Alt 19 S.
- $10 million annually to operate bus routes along those three corridors.
“It’s a broader based, bigger picture look at congestion management and traffic issues,” Eggers said.
The cost to build those projects, and others that address only unincorporated Pinellas County, is estimated at nearly $400 million. Annual operating costs were more than $31 million. County staff warned that not all the projects listed would receive money, depending on what path commissioners choose.
They are gathering similar lists from each Pinellas city.
“I have the feeling it’s going to be a pretty long list,” Gerard said, “because the transportation money is just drying up.”
The purpose of these discussions was to help commissioners select a path forward, Welch said. Burton’s presentation proposes raising the money from increases in the gas tax, the sales tax or property taxes.
A 5-cent gas tax increase would raise $179 million over 10 years. A half-cent sales tax increase would raise $1 billion in 10 years, while a quarter-cent hike would raise $500 million. As for property taxes, an extra dollar for every $1,000 of assessed value would raise $79 million for the general fund, while the same increase would raise nearly $68 million for the county’s transit agency fund.
While commissioners agree on the needs, they differ on how to pay for them.
“In my mind, it really does come down to a sales tax,” Welch said. “I think that is really only the true source to meet the needs we have.”
Eggers said the details of a sales tax, such as percentage amount and length of time, still need to be defined, but the funds from other sources “just don’t rise to the level that would make a dent even in what a quarter penny could raise.”
He added: “Really, the only alternative you have for a funding source becomes some type of sales tax.”
Gerard, who also said she was leaning toward a sales tax, said she wasn’t opposed to using a property tax increase to help close the gap. She argued the gas tax is a declining source of revenue as vehicles become more efficient and new technologies such as driver-less cars continue to develop.
The other commissioners all said they needed more time, data and input from the community before they picked a preferred option.
Seel said she wanted to reserve judgment until she heard from citizens, business groups and other members of the public.
Justice said he believed a gas tax was “the most likely Band-Aid, the first approach.” He added that it would not be a long-term solution, but it would provide some short-term relief.
Peters wasn’t ready to make a decision, but questioned the sustainability of the gas tax. “I’m not sure that’s the right solution," she said.
Long said she believes it will take a variety of different revenue sources to raise what the county needs.
“Sales tax is regressive,” she said. “It works great when the economy is humming and everything is clicking along, but as soon as the economy takes a nose dive, so does the tax base.”
Commissioners are scheduled to hear another presentation from the county administrator on needs and revenue sources next month. It is expected to include more details from the cities and input from community outreach.
Burton said he’ll take that information and come back with a recommended funding source probably in the new year.
“You will see us take action, but we are trying to be thoughtful,” Long said.
If commissioners do decide to put a sales tax on the ballot, they would need to start reviewing ballot language shortly after that in order to go through the state approval process in the spring.
Several commissioners expressed the importance of elected officials voting to put a tax on the ballot, as opposed to following a citizen petition like Hillsborough did.
Though 57 percent of Hillsborough residents voted to raise the sales tax to pay for transportation, that decision has faced legal challenges. The Florida Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in February on whether to overturn the tax.
Seel said if Pinellas went ahead with a referendum, commissioners would review lessons learned in Hillsborough and make sure that the language and plan are carefully drafted.
“I don’t want to run into that legal buzzsaw that they managed to get themselves into over there,” said Gerard. “I think we’re avoiding that.”