Transit plan for Pinellas includes new tax - FOX 13 News

Transit plan for Pinellas includes new tax

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CLEARWATER (FOX 13) -

Pinellas voters will decide November 4, 2014 whether they favor a tax swap to greatly expand mass transit countywide. If they say no, existing bus service will probably be reduced by 30 percent in 2015 and the system will run out of money by 2025.

The "boom or bust" proposition was spelled out Wednesday during a PSTA board meeting. The 15-member panel unanimously forwarded a request for a public referendum to the board of county commissioners, which will decide the amount of the proposed transit sales tax and place the issue on the ballot.

Four of Pinellas County's seven county commissioners also sit on the PSTA board, so county commission chairman Ken Welch is certain about final approval.

"The important thing is you saw a unanimous vote here from the PSTA board to move forward with a transit plan for the next 50 years in Pinellas County," Welch told FOX 13 News. "That is really important."

Bus service in Pinellas County is currently funded by a property tax that generates around $32 million a year. The proposed transit tax would raise an estimated $127 million annually. Supporters envision building a light rail system after greatly increasing traditional bus service.

"It takes 10 or 12 years to build a light rail system," PSTA chairman Jeff Danner explained. "So we can have a full-blown advance rail system in place almost in a year from the time we start collecting revenue."

PSTA expenses now exceed the property tax revenue stream. Service is being maintained in part by using cash reserves. That strategy will work through 2014, but without additional revenue services will have to be reduced to stay afloat.

Wednesday's public hearing provided a preview of the coming political battle. Transit tax supporters touted mass transit's environmental advantages and the potential for economic development. Opponents targeted the size of the tax increase and the potential for mega-sized cost overruns.

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