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No Tax for Tracks group collides with expensive Florida public transit plan

By   /   January 23, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Pinellas County residents could soon be the recipients of a massive public transportation overhaul. At face value, the cost — a penny — appears as attractive as the illustrated renderings.

ALL ABOARD?: Pinellas County voters will decide the fate of an expensive public transit plan in November.

It’s called the Pinellas Greenlight Plan, and for a mere one percent increase to the 7 percent countywide sales tax, residents could soon see a drastic expansion in bus services along with a new 24-mile light rail system.

All that stands between Pinellas and the 30-year Greenlight Plan is a “yes” vote on a November ballot referendum. That, and Barb Haselden of No Tax for Tracks.

“I’ve been going to Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority meetings for three years,” she told Watchdog.org. “They will not correct the current system, instead they want to expand it using a new funding source.”

The PSTA is now funded through property taxes, which increased over the past few years to meet its financial obligations.

The penny increase would “swap” the property tax with a sales tax, and quadruple PSTA’s budget — from about $30 million to $130 million. The new sales tax hike would tie Pinellas for the highest rate among Florida‘s 67 counties.

Greenlight’s advocates say the project is worth the investment.

“Greenlight is all about giving people a feasible choice, spending $65 a month for a bus pass instead of hundreds of dollars a month for a second car,” said Clearwater City Councilman Bill Johnson.

“They would have a lot more disposable income in their pockets to support their families,” Johnson said.

But relying on residents to take buses instead of a car is a gamble.

Still, Pinellas County commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of the plan last month, citing benefits ranging from increased economic competitiveness to environmental stewardship. The lone dissenting vote came from Norm Roche, who was relieved of his appointed position with PSTA — the author of the Greenlight Plan — a week later.

PSTA said Roche’s firing had nothing to do with his vote.

The tax increase would start Jan 1, 2016. Bus improvements would begin immediately, though the light rail system wouldn’t be ready for another 10 to 15 years.

It’s also expensive. The light rail alone comes with a projected cost of $1.7 billion, according to a PSTA website devoted entirely to the proposed benefits of the Greenlight Plan.

But a fiscal feasibility analysis, commissioned by the transit authority itself, says light rail costs are expected to increase 3 percent to 4 percent a year, ending with a total price tag of $2.34 billion.

Thirty-three rail cars are slated for the 24-mile track at $4 million a pop. Each car will need an overhaul after 13 years of use.

Haselden, who refers to herself as a grassroots organizer, led an opposition rally Tuesday night at the Abundant Life Ministries church in Largo. In an interview with Watchdog.org, Haselden said 130 people attended the event, the first of many between now and November.

In 2010, a Hillsborough County No Tax for Tracks group defeated a similar public transit initiative with just $23,000. Haselden said her Pinellas coalition is even more prepared, but so are the local government and corporate sponsors.

“What we have is a bloated, inefficient system,” she said. “If we can get the enough information out there, then people won’t vote themselves higher taxes.”

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William Patrick is Watchdog.org’s Florida reporter. His work has been featured by Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Townhall.com, as well as other national news and opinion websites. He’s also been cited and reposted by numerous state news organizations, including Florida Trend, Sunshine State News and the Miami Herald, and is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Florida Press Association. William’s work has impacted discussions on education, privacy, criminal justice reform, and government and corporate accountability. Prior to joining Watchdog, William worked for the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. There, he launched a legislative news website covering state economic issues. After leaving New York City in 2010, William worked for the Florida Attorney General’s Office where he assisted state attorneys general in prosecuting Medicaid Fraud. William graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College, City University of New York. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife and three young children.