A plan for a massive expansion of Pinellas County's transit system, including a light-rail network, is headed to the ballot.
At a packed meeting today, Pinellas County Commissioners voted 5-1 to move ahead with a November 2014 referendum on developing an expanded mass transit system. Voters will be asked to raise the local sales tax by a penny to pay for a light-rail network and a significant expansion of the county's bus system.
Pinellas commissioners have until August 2014 to approve the language that will appear on the ballot.
If Pinellas voters approve the referendum here, the tax would raise about $130 million a year.
It was requested by leaders of the governing board of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which includes four county commissioners. Without a new source of funding, agency leaders say they will have to make cuts to bus services.
PSTA's transit plan includes 24 miles of light rail from Clearwater to downtown St. Petersburg, a substantially expanded bus system, traffic lanes dedicated for buses and more pedestrian trails, among other things.
The light-rail system would cost an estimated $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion to build.
Today's vote is likely to intensify the debate between supporters and opponents of mass-public transit who packed the meeting.
Supporters, who wore "Try Transit" stickers on their shirts, included a 10-year-old boy, a teacher who came straight from giving the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to her students and two Hillsborough County residents.
Among those who spoke at today's meeting, transit supporters far outweighed the critics – by a count of 26 to nine.
Proponents said transit will help avoid total gridlock of the county's road system, improve air quality and attract better-paying jobs to Pinellas.
"Bikes, bus and rail: it's all part of a livable community," said Cathy Harrelson. "You have a choice to preside over a decline in this area or a vibrant future."
Transit proponents also questioned why opponents wanted to deny residents a vote.
"A vote against a referendum is a vote against democracy," said Chuck Terzian.
Opponents, including some local Tea Party members, wore red and white "No Tax for Trax" T-shirts. They warned the tax would burden residents, harm the economy and said residents prefer cars over buses.
"Have you really thought how this tax increase is going to affect people on the low end of the spectrum and the elderly?" said Tarpon Springs resident James Lee. "I hope you're not being stampeded by those who are pushing this thing."
Barbara Haselden, a member of the South Pinellas 9-12 group, said she fears the county will use its spending power to sell the referendum.
"The mantra today is let the people decide and put it on the ballot," she said. "There are plenty of reasons to distrust the messaging that will be coming forth."
Norm Roche, the lone nay vote, questioned why the commission needed to move forward when it has until next year to make a final decision. Roche, who sits on the PSTA board and voted to send the referendum to the commission, said he wants more information about what is proposed and how much it will cost.
"We need those details and data before we take action," he said.
A similar referendum failed in Hillsborough County in 2010, but voters there could also get another say on light rail. Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Sharpe plans to push for another referendum on that side of the bay, too, according to Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel. Whether there's enough support on the Hillsborough commission for another transit referendum is questionable, though.
Seel, whose father is a former PSTA chairman and wants to see a regional transit system built, said she has reservations about putting the referendum on the same ballot as the gubernatorial contest.
The Penny for Pinellas sales tax had been approved in off-election years, when it becomes the most important issue on the ballot, she said.
"This is my leap of faith," she said. "I really want it for the county."