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  1. Pasco

Bowen: Hey, that Pasco County road plan includes a new tax increase. Again.

OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times  Heavy traffic congestion at the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 in central Pasco. The draft version of the county's long-range transportation plan includes a proposed sales tax increase to finance road construction.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Heavy traffic congestion at the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 in central Pasco. The draft version of the county's long-range transportation plan includes a proposed sales tax increase to finance road construction.
Published Jun. 18

There are plenty of numbers in the working draft of Pasco County's long-range transportation plan — the document that guides road and transit initiatives through 2045.

The county's population by then is expected to reach 795,600, a 64 percent growth rate over the 2015 total. That's actually a slower pace than previously projected.

More than half of the new residents are expected in the Trinity to Wesley Chapel corridor that Pasco calls its south market area. More than two-thirds of all the new jobs (or 74,000 employees) are anticipated to land there as well.

To get people around, the county could use 33 new bus routes costing $102.5 million annually to operate. And planners are drawing up maps with 809 new miles of local roads costing $7.6 billion.

But the number that drew the most attention recently was the smallest one.

That is 1 percent. As in, the county might need to increase its sales tax rate by 1 percent, or an additional penny on the dollar, to help pay for roads, buses and other transportation elements to get people from here to there over the next 25 years.

It brought an expected response.

"My opinion is: I don't think we should make this assumption,'' said Commissioner Mike Moore.

That's understandable. Deciding to ask voters for a tax increase lies with elected officials, not hired consultants.

But it's also not binding and it certainly isn't new. The suggestion for an increase in the sales tax is included in the current version of the county's long-range plan that covers 2015-2040. Commissioners are required to approve an update every five years.

Moore joined a unanimous commission in late 2014 to adopt the current plan, though, at the time, he added the caveat, "I'd like to get that (tax increase) amended right out of there.''

The same tax forecast was included in the 2009 plan update as well. As far back as the 1990s, consultants hired to develop the long-range plan have included proposals for new taxes to help match income with expenditures.

I once watched previous commissioners hem and haw after hearing a consultant suggest a nickel-per-gallon increase in the local gasoline tax to fill a $42 million gap in the road plan covering 1995 to 2015. The commission, sitting as the Metropolitan Planning Organization, finally approved the long-range plan after a deputy county administrator volunteered, "He (consultant) doesn't need to know and you don't need to say'' how you're going to finance the plan.

In other words, it doesn't really matter.

That was in 1995. Coincidentally, a separate commission did approve the gas tax hike in 2014 to finance a lagging road maintenance budget.

This time, the shortfall is billions of dollars. The draft plan identifies $7.6 billion worth of road improvements, including new and wider roads, and as many as six highway interchanges. The expected revenue to pay for it is listed at $3.2 billion.

The draft report offers options of adding either a half-cent or full penny to the local sales tax in 2028 or 2038. One of the reasons for that suggestion is the 2018 decision by Hillsborough County voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation. The feeling is that Pasco voters might look favorable upon a similar referendum.

Naturally, some of the projected roads might be whittled from the draft version before the commission gives its final consideration later this year. Among some of the interesting proposals are a trio of east-west routes running parallel to State Road 52 through what is now rural, undeveloped land. The plan lists two roads from Ehren Cutoff eastward to Old Pasco Road, one sitting north of SR 52 and the proposed Pasco Village Parkway south of the highway. There also is a planned extension of Connerton Boulevard eastward to connect to the new Overpass Road interchange at Interstate 75.

The plan aims to address public concerns about easing traffic congestion, shortening commutes and providing alternatives to driving.

At the Metropolitan Planning Organization last week, nobody enthusiastically embraced a new sales tax increase. Commissioner Kathryn Starkey suggested reducing publicly subsidized transportation fees on new development. Commissioner Jack Mariano wondered if the county should consider how it allocates its Penny for Pasco revenues. That sales tax, which expires in 2024, but is expected to be considered for re-authorization, provides money to the county for public safety, environmental land preservation, transportation and economic development.

The thing to remember is that this is a long-range, emphasis on long, plan for transportation. Voters shouldn't get too excited considering it took 19 years for the proposed gasoline tax increase to become reality.

So, ask me how I feel about a high sales tax in 2038.

If I'm still driving.

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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