Greenlight Pinellas plan includes a countywide transformation of bus service with more frequency, night and weekend service, as well as implementation of rail, coordination of land use and connections to Tampa.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett walks county commissioners through the decisions needed to write the ballot language for a referendum on a new way to fund transportation during an Oct. 29 work session.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Brad Miller, CEO for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, answers questions from Pinellas County Commissioners Oct. 29 about plans to improve transportation countywide.
CLEARWATER – If everything goes according to plan, Pinellas County residents will get an opportunity to vote Nov. 4, 2014, on a different method of funding its transportation system.
Pinellas County Commissioners discussed the details of a referendum question Oct. 29 that would allow residents to vote yes or no to levy a transportation surtax of 1 percent to replace the current funding method of ad valorem (property) tax.
County Attorney Jim Bennett provided the commission with a memo of the decision points to be made during the work session. The first was the amount of the tax - 1 percent or up to 1 percent. All but Commissioner Norm Roche voted in favor of 1 percent. Roche voted no to all the questions about the ballot language.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller said 1 percent is necessary for PSTA to fulfill its financial plan, which was recently vetted by a third party consultant.
Miller said PSTA would like the new tax to take effect Jan. 1, 2016, to “zero out” property tax on Oct. 1, 2015, so citizens don’t have to pay both taxes at the same time.
“We would float on reserves until Jan. 1, 2016,” he said.
Commissioners have the responsibility to specify the uses for the new tax. The consensus was to restrict the use to expenses necessary to improve and expand the current bus system, add bus rapid transit and a light rail system, as specified by Greenlight Pinellas, as well as operations and maintenance of the system.
Interlocal agreements between the county, its municipalities and PSTA could dictate how the money from the tax is shared. Bennett said the commission could decide to act as a pass-through for the money or simply act as a pass-through to PSTA. He said the commission might want to reserve some authority on the timing of the release of funds.
The consensus was to pass 100 percent of the money to PSTA and hold an annual meeting between the commission and PSTA to discuss how the money was spent. PSTA will remain liable for its operations and the county will simply act as the funding mechanism, the same as it does with Penny for Pinellas funds dispersed to municipalities.
County Administrator Bob LaSala is concerned about unknown costs for related expenses, such as utility relocation, right of way acquisition and changes to the traffic signal system. He talked out joint-use facilities and land zoning differences between jurisdictions in relation to stations and support system for light rail and bus rapid transit.
Bennett said Greenlight Pinellas, which is the overall plan to improve the transportation system, calls for utility relocation to follow the method used by the Florida Department of Transportation, which means the expense would be paid by the utility, not PSTA. The county could end up on the hook for the expense of relocations involving the Utility Department.
Bennett said county’s financial adviser needed to review the plan.
“This could get expensive very quickly,” he said.
Miller said experts working on the Greenlight Pinellas plan had tried to consider as many expenses as possible, including those mentioned by LaSala. However, everyone agreed there would be unknowns. Miller said it was PSTA’s intention to work with the county on any issues.
Bennett said the commission also had to decide whether to specify an ending date for the tax or to ask voters to approve continuing the 1 percent charge until repealed. A repeal of the tax, however, is unlikely unless another funding source is found to pay for operations and maintenance of transit systems.
The plan calls for bus improvements to begin right away with bus expansions finished and in service by 2021. Rail planning isn’t scheduled to start until 2018, with construction slated to begin in 2021. Rail service would begin in 2024.
Commissioner Karen Seel pointed out that the plan covers 35 years and suggested that after all the infrastructure is completed, not as much money would be required.
Miller said since the surtax would become PSTA’s only funding source, it would be needed to pay all future operations and maintenance costs, which are currently unknown. Some of the cost of construction for improved bus system and light rail is expected to come from state and federal grants.
All parties insist that the ballot language be transparent, direct and easily understood. PSTA released a draft of proposed ballot language, as follows.
“Shall the improvement, operation and maintenance of public transit throughout Pinellas County, including without limitation an expanded bus system with bus rapid transit, increased frequency and extended hours, future passenger rail and regional connections be funded by levying a 1 percent transportation sales surtax from Jan. 1, 2016 until repealed?”
The county attorney’s office will continue to work the PSTA legal team to come up with final ballot language for the commission’s approval. The commission is scheduled to continue discussion at its Dec. 3 work session. A final hearing to approve the ballot language is set for Dec. 10.