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Courage needed to build roads

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

They evoked Sandra Werner's name in the West Pasco Government Center this week.

She has folk hero status in local political circles for her 1984 vote to raise the gasoline tax in Pasco County. Werner arrived via an ambulance stretcher to cast the vote -- inflammation of the spinal discs had made walking impossible -- because she feared the commission didn't have the necessary four votes to double the local gas tax and begin $15-million worth of road-building projects.

It was not a photo op or grandstanding. The cable television crew even honored a county request not to videotape the bed-ridden commissioner during the meeting. No, this was courage, plain and simple.

Thursday, as county commissioners talked about building new roads and paying to fix what already exists, one thing became clear -- we could use a little of Werner's moxie these days. Political courage is in short supply.

How else do you explain Commissioner Pat Mulieri, elected countywide, tossing out the always provincial what's-in-it-for-my-district attitude?

Or Commissioner Steve Simon voicing opposition to a gas tax increase in 2002 because it might jeopardize the still-fictional attempt to raise the sales tax in 2004?

Or two commissioners, Ann Hildebrand and Mulieri, taking credit for voting for something that never came up for a vote? Their memory stretched to a short-lived idea in 1998 to raise the gasoline tax by 1 cent per gallon. It died 10 minutes after its introduction, buried under an avalanche of questions from two commissioners no longer on the board.

While hardly rivaling Al Gore's invention of the Internet, the exaggeration still exemplifies a leadership problem. If Mulieri and Hildebrand were such steadfast supporters, how come they never explored the idea again before Thursday even though new faces joined the commission in 1998 and again in 2000?

That being said, let's offer up a few kudos while we're at it.

To Commissioner Peter Altman for broaching the idea of raising the gasoline tax. To Commissioner Ted Schrader for acknowledging more than just a 1-cent increase is needed for any progress to be made on the local road network. To Hildebrand for doing likewise. To Simon, for retreating from earlier reservations and saying afterward he could support at least the first penny increase. And, to Mulieri for expressing similar sentiment during the meeting.

If you're thinking this commentary is all over the place, then consider it an accurate recap of Thursday's work session.

But the give-and-take did end productively. By day's end, all five commissioners voiced support for raising the gasoline tax 1 cent. The tax already is assessed by the state on diesel fuel. This will allow the county to do likewise on regular and unleaded gasoline. It would raise $1.4-million annually. Thirty-eight counties in Florida, including Hillsborough, Hernando and Polk already charge it. Pinellas, which uses an additional penny sales tax to fund some road construction, does not.

It is the same tax proposal that died a quick death in April 1998. Then, the proceeds were intended to buy equipment and hire personnel to maintain culverts and roadside drainage because of the heavy local flooding brought by El Nino. Drainage maintenance work, the county acknowledged, had been displaced by the emphasis on the county's paving assessment program in which residential streets are reconstructed by the county, but paid for by the individual property owners in the neighborhood.

This time, the proceeds would buy equipment and hire the crew to better maintain existing roads, which also has taken a back seat to paving assessment projects. (The county assumed the paving assessments itself after discovering it could rebuild local roads more cheaply than outside contractors.)

Under the gas tax plan, the county, after the initial equipment purchases, would be left with roughly $800,000 annually to use for other work including accelerating construction of upgraded roads or paying monthly power bills for street lights installed at state expense on major highways.

Altman also floated the idea of raising the gas tax an additional two cents. This is allowed under the local option tax which gives county governments the ability to assess up to an extra nickel per gallon to pay for the transportation element of its comprehensive land use plan. Among surrounding counties, Hernando charges two cents while Polk assesses the entire five cents.

The additional money, a little less than $2.4-annually, could be used to acquire right of way for future road work and to install sidewalks and other pedestrian safety standards, Altman suggested. Here's where Mulieri and Simon, both facing re-election this year, balked. A four-fifths vote of the commission is needed for approval.

While Altman agreed quickly that sidewalk maintenance might be a luxury, the board shouldn't abandon the idea of stockpiling money for right of way costs.

State road planners have said right of way acquisition prices go up 10 percent annually, effectively doubling every seven years. The Department of Transportation previously announced delays in widening State Roads 54 and 52 because of high right of way expenses.

And before their workshop Thursday, commissioners, sitting as the Metropolitan Planning Organization, received another reminder. The plan to widen State Road 52 from Moon Lake to U.S. 41 calls for additional lanes, but a reduced speed limit because the state will be buying less right of way for the project.

Put another way, after more than 15(!) years of delays, Pasco will still lack a high-speed east-west corridor because of the exorbitant expense of buying the necessary land.

It shouldn't take courage to figure this out. Just common sense.

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