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Traffic planning at a crossroads

Struggling to ease congestion, Pinellas leaders seek to coordinate transit efforts and may consider raising the gas tax.

By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2002

Three months ago Steve Spratt arrived in Pinellas County from Miami, where congestion is so bad Gov. Jeb Bush joked the city is the birthplace of road rage.

Did Spratt breathe a sigh of relief?

No. He quickly noticed he was spending an awful lot of time at stop lights -- and too many traffic signals weren't synchronized.

Other transportation issues also puzzle the county administrator. Pinellas is losing as much as $15-million a year for transportation projects because it doesn't tax gasoline an extra nickel per gallon as the state allows. The county also operates without a full-scale transit agency.

It's not even clear who should pursue millions in federal transportation dollars, a chance that comes around just once every six years.

Others have the same questions. Now Spratt and the County Commission are seeking some answers -- and willing to discuss whether to raise the gas tax.

They also want to aggressively pursue more federal money for everything from U.S. 19 to a light rail system. And they hope a forum of Pinellas city and county leaders in May could help Pinellas develop a more unified transportation plan.

Pinellas enjoys a reputation for effective government, but it struggles to find its way on transportation issues.

County commissioners Bob Stewart, Calvin Harris, Susan Latvala and Karen Seel quickly agreed that Pinellas needs more coordinated traffic planning and management. And they offer candid reasons for the mess, ranging from petty squabbling to local leaders being short on ambition.

Many agree if something doesn't change, congestion headaches will only get worse.

Placing blame

Stewart chairs the county's transportation planning board, the Metropolitan Planning Organization. He described county transportation efforts as splintered.

"The county hasn't voiced its positions with enough of a unified voice," Stewart said. "Cities tend to look at it within city limits, the county tends to look at county roads, then (state transportation officials) look at state highways."

He even points the finger at the organization he now chairs.

"That's one of the roles of the MPO -- to try to get over provincialism, and look at the total picture. We could have been and should have been more successful in doing that. Hopefully, we will be in the future."

Spratt said county leaders must take a more active role in planning. He praised individual leaders, such as Stewart, Seel, and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Largo, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

But Spratt said Pinellas may have relied too much on two factors: the Penny for Pinellas sales tax, used for all types of building projects, and Young's ability to bring home federal transportation dollars. Last year alone, Young delivered more than $75-million in federal money to improve accident-prone U.S. 19.

"We have to give a lot of credit to Bill Young," Spratt said. "But his efforts would be aided by the county having a very clear, well-reasoned list of projects that he can advocate for in Washington."

Deadlines drive these concerns. Next year is when the new federal transportation bill will be approved, authorizing six years' worth of federal spending. Pinellas needs to make requests this year to get into the bill such possibilities as light rail. An MPO committee is working on possible rail routes, and while some remain skeptical, the issue has taken a higher priority.

Commission Chairman Barbara Sheen Todd sees those efforts as a sign that county leaders are finally willing to think beyond pavement -- a cause she's advocated for years.

"There's a very positive attitude I'm feeling that this has been a problem, but we can attack it," she said.

Commissioner John Morroni said the county's upcoming discussions about next year's budget are the perfect opportunity to discuss whether to raise the gas tax. Like Spratt, he's not sure he wants an increase. But with the county receiving less money from tourist taxes, he thinks "everything should be on the table."

Divided county

County officials take pride in the county's low tax rates. The county has 6 cents per gallon of local gas tax and the authority to add a nickel more. Several counties charge more, including Broward with 11 cents, Miami-Dade with 10 cents and Palm Beach with 12 cents. Hillsborough has 7 cents.

Why hasn't Pinellas focused on transportation? Some said tensions naturally arise when 24 municipalities jostle in a densely populated county. Others talked about the split between north and south county.

"I think it goes back to how Pinellas grew up, and we have 24 municipalities," Seel said.

Seel has helped lead a project to improve traffic signalization countywide. New technology will soon link St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Pinellas County's traffic signals, but it still frustrates Seel that three different jurisdictions control a function that should be seamless.

"You start in one city, you go to the county, then to another city, then to the county," she sighed. "Is that really efficient? And is it cost-effective?"

Seel wants the county to control all traffic signals and the entire road system, a wish she admitted was unrealistic.

Stewart pointed to recent tension over whether a planned high-speed rail line should go to St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport, to St. Petersburg or both, as an example of disputes that occur between north and south Pinellas.

"That kind of mixed signal we're sending to Tallahassee doesn't make for a good system of cooperation," he said.

It's a tension that exists only in the political realm, said Stewart, a St. Petersburg resident.

"When I talk to individual citizens and constituents on my street, and when I talk to people in Tarpon Springs and East Lake, there's never that discussion about us and them and which side of Ulmerton do you live on," he said. "It's when you get the politicians and policy makers together that you see that."

Harris said Pinellas is hampered by an inferiority complex -- a failure to believe it's as important as Miami, Orlando or Tampa. Political leaders have failed to put big ideas, such as rail, on the table in Tallahassee and Washington, he said.

"Our expectations have got to improve," he said.

Harris pointed to Jacksonville with irritation.

"They've got two-thirds the population of Pinellas, and they've got highways and water taxis and light rail," he said. "There are a lot of things that should have happened in Pinellas that didn't. That's where we've got to be aggressive to make sure it does."

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