1. Transportation

Long-term transportation plan includes sales tax increase

Just a month after voters in two neighboring counties rejected 1-cent sales tax increases for transit and roads, Pasco commissioners and elected city leaders will be asked to consider a long-term transportation plan that includes $1.6 billion from a similar sales tax.

But the proposal may face a bumpy road.

"That's news to me,'' said County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader. "We just raised the gas tax, we're talking about an MSTU (property tax district) for parks and recreation and possibly libraries. For us to have a conversation about raising the sales tax when we just renewed the Penny for Pasco? This commissioner will not be warmly receiving the idea of raising the sales tax.''

The proposal is contained in the county's $7.5 billion "cost affordable'' transportation plan, covering 2020 to 2040. It is scheduled to be considered by commissioners and city officials sitting as the Metropolitan Planning Organization on Dec. 11. The plan calls for $6.65 billion from local sources, including $1.6 billion, or nearly a quarter of the local money, that would be generated by a charter county surtax beginning in 2025.

Under state law, charter counties or those aligned with them via regional transportation systems, can impose an extra penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for mass transit and road construction. Voters in both Pinellas and Polk counties overwhelmingly rejected similar sales tax proposals in the Nov. 4 election.

Jim Edwards, Pasco's MPO director, characterized the proposal as a planning exercise to include as many transportation projects as possible in the 20-year plan.

"By no means does it lock in any of these, but it's an assumption of revenue and it gives you a more complete picture of what projects you could do if you assume the financing is available,'' said Edwards, who said the same tax forecast was included in the prior update of the long-range plan in 2009.

Even though the proposed tax is a decade away, getting buy-in from current commissioners could be problematic. Commissioner Jack Mariano voted against the 5-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax increase taking effect Jan. 1, and commissioners Mike Moore and Mike Wells both stated their objections to higher gas taxes during their recent campaigns.

"With those guys (Polk and Pinellas) not doing anything, there's really no need for us to do anything,'' said Mariano. "It's a long ways away . . . so why would we even think to visit that?''

Mariano said the county would be wiser to shift how it allocates Penny for Pasco dollars after 2024 rather than entertain a new sales tax. In some ways, that is exactly what the planners are doing. The long-range plan includes no Penny for Pasco money after 2024, but instead replaces it with the new tax dedicated exclusively for transportation. The county's share of current Penny for Pasco sales tax is used for transportation, economic development, environmental preservation and public safety. The school district also gets half the tax proceeds for capital construction and technology upgrades.

The county is federally mandated to update its long-range transportation plan every five years. The draft 2040 plan calls for less money to be spent on new highways, but greater spending on road maintenance and mass transit than what the county approved in its 2009 update. The new plan also is significantly smaller, down more than $2.2 billion from the current plan. The reduced spending is attributed to less federal and state aid, and also because county mobility fees bring in less money than previous transportation impact fees.

If commissioners decline to ask voters for a future sales tax increase, the plan would be modified in the future to either cut $1.6 billion worth of spending or identify different funding to balance it.

"That's why we do it every five years,'' said Edwards.