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What could $5 billion do for Pinellas transportation? County has some ideas.

Commissioners next month will discuss how to spend a possible sales tax. Any voter referendum would have to be sent to state officials in May.
Traffic backs up in the southbound off-ramp from U.S. 19 at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Pinellas County Commissioners are reviewing a laundry list of transportation projects that could cost as much as $5 billion over the next 30 years. [Times (2012)]

Pinellas County elected officials have less than two months to decide whether and how to pay for a $5 billion list of road, trail and transit needs that transportation experts say would address the region’s travel snarls.

County Administrator Barry Burton met with Pinellas’ seven county commissioners this week to discuss a list of projects for the next three decades, compiled from each of the county’s municipalities. The wish lists include “primary” projects that would benefit the entire region and “enhanced” projects that would provide local connections to the regional corridors.

“It’s hard to project out for 30 years, and there’s a few different options we can do,” Burton said. “I’m trying to get a sense of where commissioners are at on this, what they’re hearing in the community and what our options are.”

For years, county officials have struggled with a shrinking pot of available dollars. The county’s transportation trust fund will dip into negatives starting in 2022.

County staff has spent the last year and a half evaluating solutions — projects that could make a difference and revenue sources to pay for them.

Related: Pinellas looks to spend millions on transportation. But how to pay for it?

A draft of the area’s wish lists — pitched by cities such as Clearwater, Largo, St. Petersburg and Oldsmar — includes a mix of sidewalks, new lanes, synchronized stoplights, more frequent bus routes, widened intersections and expanded trails.

If everything on the lists were completed, the work would cost more than a billion dollars over the next 30 years, according to staff research.

Operating and maintenance for the new projects would cost an additional $62 million annually.

“When you’re doing something that’s 30 years, now its harder to project,” Burton said. “What will be ready in 10 years is one thing, but what are our needs going to be 15, 20 years from now is a lot harder. That’s the piece that’s taking us a lot more time.”

Simply maintaining existing roads, trails, bridges and transit services would cost about $77 million in one-time costs and nearly $65 million each year in operating and maintenance, according to data provided by staff.

Add all that together — new and existing projects, building and operating — and the price tag totals nearly $5 billion.

Here is a sampling of projects submitted by local governments for the county commission to consider:

  • $102 million in infrastructure improvements to reduce travel times, including new right-turn lanes at intersections and expanding roads.
  • $4 million to replace bridges in St. Petersburg and give them sidewalks and bike lanes.
  • $60 million to increase street lighting along major corridors
  • $18.6 million to build express bus routes with high frequency and limited stops along U.S. 19 North and South, with South facing the bigger demand.

Now that officials have a draft list of projects they want to address and how much it’ll cost them, they have to decide where the money will come from.

Related: Cross-Bay Ferry ridership nearly doubles, but leaders disagree on what's next

Burton’s staff put together a model that allows them to test various revenue scenarios, such as a half-cent or full-cent sales tax, bonded or not, paying for 50 percent or 100 percent of the projects listed. Gas tax and property tax increases are not included.

“Really, the only option that adequately funds the county’s transportation, jobs and housing model would be the sales tax,” commissioner Ken Welch said. “Gas tax doesn’t give you enough to get the job done. I don’t support expanding property taxes or some of the other methods.”

Welch and commissioner Pat Gerard support pursuing a sales tax referendum that would be placed before voters on the November ballot. Other commissioners, including Janet Long, are still weighing the options.

“I don’t know anyone who thinks we don’t have transportation issues in this county or in the region, quite frankly,” Long said. “I’m very open to hearing any and all options. What I do not want is a Band-Aid. I want to focus on real solutions that bring real results.”

The commissioners will discuss the project lists and potential funding sources April 2. If they reach a consensus on whether to levy a sales tax, they’ll set a public hearing later that month.

If the commission decides to place a sales tax for transportation on the November ballot, Burton said it must hold the public hearing and finalize the language before the first week of May.

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