Tampa Tribune editorial: Let Pinellas voters decide transit
For decades Pinellas County has been, by far, Florida's most densely populated county, dwarfing Broward in the number of people per square mile. The result has been horrendous traffic gridlock, which has spawned such goofy ideas as double-decking U.S. 19, once dubbed "Useless 19." With the county of about 917,000 people essentially built out, there is not enough land to continue adding lanes to existing roads or otherwise expand road networks. New solutions must be pursued.This is why Pinellas residents need to decide whether to invest in a vastly upgraded transit system — including a proposed 24-mile, light-rail line from downtown St. Petersburg to Clearwater, and greatly expanded public bus service. For Pinellas County commissioners, the task at today's meeting should be easy: Adopt a resolution that would declare their intent to put a referendum on a proposed transportation surtax on the Nov. 4, 2014, general election ballot. According to the proposed resolution, voters would decide whether to levy a transportation surtax of "of up to" 1 cent on the dollar. The plan backed by many officials and business leaders calls for asking voters to approve the full penny, which would boost the sales tax in Pinellas to 8 cents. Tea party activists and other opponents are already blasting the plan, citing, in part, that only 3 percent of residents use the county's public bus service, Pinellas Suncoast Transit. But that narrow-minded view fails to take into account the number of motorists who would love the option of taking a train from Clearwater to St. Petersburg to visit museums or see a baseball game — or who want relief from daily traffic jams on their way to work. Today's vote would only pave the way for a final determination, which must be made by early August 2014, on whether to set the referendum for the 2014 general election ballot. There will be plenty of time to debate the plan and finalize details, including how to spend the proceeds of the proposed transportation tax. The light-rail system alone is expected to cost $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion, but the proposed resolution also notes the tax revenues could be used for "various non-transit transportation projects, including roads and bridges." Opponents would have the public believe this is a rush job, but it's not. In addition to county officials and leaders grappling with transportation issues for decades, the county created a transportation task force in 2010 to discuss these critical issues. And the task force's report, which included the recommendation of a transportation surtax referendum, was completed Dec. 13, 2010. As Commission Chairman Ken Welch said at a recent meeting: "We've studied this for 30 years; it's time to let the people decide."