County administrator updates commissioners on transportation plans

Traffic congestion is the No. 1 complaint of residents in Pinellas County. Officials are working on a plan to find solutions to reduce congestion and make other transportation improvements.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton recently updated county commissioners about a plan to improve transportation and reduce traffic congestion.

The plan, called Connecting Our Community, intends to use transportation to link people to jobs, housing and training.

Burton began working with Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s CEO Brad Miller this summer to try to find solutions to the county’s “big problem:” How to get from Point A to Point B quicker and safer.

The plans overarching theme is connecting the community and using transportation to link people to where the need to go quicker and safer.

One thing Burton has done is take the conversation out into the community. He has presented information about the plan to municipalities, colleges, businesses, chambers, as well as large groups throughout the county including industry and community organizations.

The public has made it clear that something needs to be done about the worsening traffic. Burton said everyone agrees that congestion is a problem that needs a solution.

“Traffic is the No. 1 issue that’s on their minds because they face it every day,” he said.

Officials are working on a balanced solution that includes reducing road congestion, making transportation corridors safer and enhancing transit services.

Ways to reduce road congestion include improving traffic light coordination along major corridors, intersection improvements and use of technology to improve safe traffic flow.

Officials believe safety can be enhanced at vulnerable locations by filling sidewalk and trail gaps to improve connectivity and by increasing street lighting in areas with high numbers of nighttime crashes.

Plans also include faster and more reliable transit services to better connect workers to jobs, training and affordable housing. Transit services also would be expanded for veterans, disabled residents and seniors while maintaining existing services.

The problem continues to be cost. To implement the basic plan, the county would need more than $906 million over 10 years to pay for capital costs plus annual operations and maintenance. It would cost nearly $1.4 billion over 10 years to implement enhanced plans.

Ways to get the money haven’t changed since plans were first presented. Three options are on the table. The first is to increase the local option fuel tax by 5 cents, which would bring in $174 million over 10 years. The money would be split with the municipalities with 60% going to the county and the cities sharing 40%.

The second option would be to ask residents to approve a transportation sales surtax. A half cent would bring in about $1 billion over 10 years and 1 cent would double the take to about $2 billion.

The third option would be to place the burden on property owners by increasing ad valorem taxes. If the general fund millage were increased by 1 mill, it would bring in about $80 million, based on fiscal year 2019 property values. An increase of PSTA’s millage by 1 mill would garner nearly $68 million.

Burton said raising the fuel tax by 5 cents would only bring in enough to maintain status quo. It would require approval by the Board of County Commissioners and the earliest it could become effective is Jan. 1, 2021.

A transportation sales surtax would bring in enough money to begin to make improvements, he said, adding that about one-third would be paid by visitors. It also would allow the county to look at borrowing funds to pay for transportation needs. It would require voter approval and the earliest it could become effective is Jan. 1, 2021.

To get enough money over 10 years to fund improvements would require a 1.22 mill increase to ad valorem taxes, plus another 0.62 mill to fund enhanced improvements along with a 0.20 mill increase to stabilize existing programs.

PSTA’s millage rate cannot by increased because it is capped by the legislature at 0.75 mills.

An increase in general fund ad valorem taxes would take approval by the BCC and the earliest it could become effective is Oct. 1, 2020.

Burton said the sales surtax seemed to be the “most palpable.” He said a half cent would bring in enough money to keep existing programs stable until fiscal year 2028. The funding also could be used to leverage grants and the county could borrow against it to fill funding gaps. Approval of a 1-cent tax would keep existing programs stable until fiscal year 2044.

He said regardless of whatever option the commission approved, some improvements could result.

“We would be able to move traffic, reduce congestion, improve safety and create transportation options,” he said.

Commissioners indicated they still would like more details. Commissioner Dave Eggers said tourism needed to be incorporated and the effect of commuters, especially from Pasco County.

Burton said the plan is to improve transit to make it faster and more predictable to get some of the vehicles off the roadways.

“That would make a huge difference,” he said.

He said he would continue to reach out to the community and explore the options. He would then bring back his findings and scenarios based on everybody’s input.

“We’ll look at all the solutions that work to reduce congestion and increase safety,” he said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.