Just a little over a week ago, I joined 115 elected officials, including the mayors of Pinellas County’s five largest cities, county, city and business leaders, community representatives and planners in attending a funding workshop to discuss our transportation needs. While I applaud the effort to have this broad discussion, it was Groundhog Day as it felt like I’d been there before. In our urban and growing county of nearly a million residents and 4 million additional tourists, the discussions at the workshop revealed nothing new.
We woefully underfund transit in Pinellas County. Almost every other county around us contributes substantially to transit from the general budget, and we do not. Neighboring counties raise more gas tax cents to support community needs for transit and roads, and we do not. Yet, we’ve known for decades that our residents deserve a safer, more balanced transportation system that gives our residents freedom regardless of income and choices for how we travel where no choice exists today. To make matters worse, we are one of the most dangerous communities for pedestrians and bicyclists in the nation.
The funding levels that support our roadways, traffic signals, sidewalks and bikeways as well as public transportation services are outdated and can’t keep up with expenses. In the case of public transit services, this means cutting one of the most innovative and efficient systems in the United States, but one that ranks dead last in investment per capita and is dwarfed by the investment of other counties around the state.
Our own neighbors across the bay recognized their lack of funding and took action. Hillsborough County and its cities now have the opportunity to fill their potholes, fix their signal timing and intersections, make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, and give new transit access to benefit both their neighborhoods and their economy. The increase in Hillsborough’s sales tax will give children safe routes to school, give new graduates access to jobs and give employers a broader reach for their labor pool. For public transportation alone, this will be three times the amount of operating and five times the amount of capital investment compared to Pinellas. So when new businesses look to the vibrant Tampa Bay area as a potential location and ask both counties about public transportation for their employees to commute to work, where do you think they will choose to locate?
By contrast, the PSTA board recently agreed to pursue cutting routes to our most vulnerable citizens to meet our budget deficit. While other urban counties in Florida have stepped up with billions of dollars in transportation system investment, Pinellas County itself has done little in the way of supporting transit with general funds. The Pinellas County Commission has the capability to stop talking and start taking action on the options over which they have control. A positive first step would be for the County Commission to support a 5 cent gas tax increase for balanced transportation, similar to other counties across the state. Additionally, the county could recognize that our tourists put an enormous burden on our transportation system and allocate bed tax dollars to funding tourist-oriented transportation options. Both sources are limited, but for the moment they will keep us from falling further behind until we identify a longer-term solution.
We need to be intellectually honest. Our residents deserve better. They deserve action from our elected officials instead of more studies, plans and talk.
Darden Rice, a member of the St. Petersburg Council, is vice chair of Forward Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization and past chair of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.