They received virtually no public attention, but buried in the tax cuts and the state budget that the Florida Legislature sent to Gov. Rick Scott are two significant provisions that would help Tampa Bay create a more robust mass transit system. Allowing resort tax dollars to be used for transportation and allocating seed money to design a regional transit plan are the latest in string of encouraging signs that progress is methodically being made on Tampa Bay's most pressing public policy challenge.
Quietly added late last week to the tax cut legislation is a provision that enables the existing resort tax on hotel stays to be spent on an expanded list of uses such as transportation and sewer projects that benefit tourists and the tourism industry. Historically, state law has limited use of the resort tax to paying for tourism advertising, beach replenishment and tourism-related facilities, from museums and convention centers to sports stadiums. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sponsored separate legislation that would expand the use, and the concept wound up in the broader tax cut package approved Sunday by the Legislature.
This is a sensible change that has been supported by Pinellas County commissioners and recognizes the importance of improving transportation and other infrastructure in tourist-heavy areas. The bill, HB 7087, also includes safeguards to keep the money from being used as a slush fund. Among other things, county commissions must approve using resort tax money for these projects by a two-thirds vote, and tourist money can cover only up to 70 percent of a project's cost. Counties must also spend at least 40 percent of all tourist tax money to promote tourism before spending resort tax money on these expanded uses, a reasonable requirement that Pinellas and Hillsborough counties already meet.
The second piece of good news is $1 million in the 2018-19 state budget that would be used by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority to produce a regional transit development plan for the Tampa Bay area. This blueprint could be a key guide in creating a transit system that is more efficient and affordable while improving the region's job competitiveness and quality of life.
The plan would help ensure that policymakers across the region were on the same page with transportation planning. Federal, state and local officials would have a rallying point for jointly funding projects. And the money would give TBARTA the ability to fulfill its duty to get projects from the planning table into operation. The region is already looking to create intercounty rapid bus service and new circulators in downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa. But there has to be an overarching plan for connecting all these projects into a master transit system.
Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and the incoming Senate president, whose district includes Manatee and parts of Hillsborough counties, deserves credit for his work over the past two years to put the bay area's transportation planning on solid footing. Resort tax collections continue to grow in Pinellas and Hillsborough, and there is every reason that some of that money should be used for transportation and other infrastructure projects that are used by tourists and benefit tourism. Gov. Rick Scott should embrace both the resort tax changes and the TBARTA money as smart investments in the future of Tampa Bay.