Bush okays new rules for road, rail
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Pinellas and Hillsborough counties can ask voters for up to a 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for mass transit, roads and bridges.
The state can more easily build toll roads anywhere.
And planners can hire designers and builders for the first leg of a new high-speed bullet train from St. Petersburg to Orlando.
All of those measures, and a reduction from $15 to $1.50 for a permanent disabled parking permit, are part of a massive transportation bill Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law Thursday.
The governor gave his approval despite strong opposition from environmental groups that complained it will ease development regulations and let sprawl consume the state.
"We're disappointed he signed the bill," said Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida. "We think it will have serious negative effects on growth management."
Bush vetoed a similar bill last year because, he said, it tied together dozens of seemingly unrelated issues that legislators tried to get passed at the last minute.
This year, the bill (CS HB 261) once again included many proposals, almost 168 changes to current law outlined in 175 pages. But the governor called the bill "sound legislation deserving of my signature" because it was shorter and each measure had received approval by a legislative committee.
The House passed the bill with several amendments 114-1 and the Senate 35-1 on the last day of the legislative session in March. It goes into effect July 1.
"This bill contains provisions . . . widely supported by the construction industry, seaports, airports, the consulting community and other transportation providers," Bush wrote.
It allows new two-wheeled scooters, called Segways, on sidewalks, creates the Florida Firefighters and Police Benevolent Association license plates and changes the way rental car taxes are distributed statewide, likely resulting in less money for the Tampa Bay area.
A little-known amendment buried in the bill lets Pinellas and Hillsborough counties ask voters whether to approve a new sales tax of up to 1 cent on the dollar for mass transit, roads and bridges.
The tax is similar to the Penny for Pinellas and Hillsborough's community investment tax, both of which pay for capital improvement projects, such as parks, drainage and Raymond James Stadium.
Voters could see it on a ballot as soon as November. But it is unclear whether county commissioners would take advantage of the tax and seek voter approval.
"These bills are not new taxes or tax increases," said Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, who sponsored the amendment. "Nor are they local mandates."
Hillsborough wants $1-billion over the next decade for transportation. Pinellas is spending $2.5-million over the next two years to study the county's transit needs, including a light-rail system.
Both counties already charge a 6-percent sales tax. Pinellas charges another 1 percentage point for the Penny for Pinellas. Hillsborough charges another three-quarters of a percentage point for capital improvements and indigent care.
In Pinellas, a sales tax of 1-percentage point would have raised $117.6-million in the 2001-02 fiscal year. In Hillsborough, it would have raised $161.5-million.
The bill does not spell out how long they could keep collecting the new tax.
The most contentious part of the transportation bill allows the state to build turnpikes whether or not they are financially feasible. Tolls paid by drivers in the rest of the system, including on the Sunshine Skyway, will subsidize the money losers.
The Department of Transportation has faced criticism for using inflated traffic estimates to justify building toll roads that fell short of paying for themselves. Even though state law forbids the department to build toll roads that do not make money, the DOT has built four the past 12 years, including the Veterans Expressway in Tampa and the Suncoast Parkway in Hernando and Pasco counties.
At least 10 environmental groups, the Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida, encouraged members to call and e-mail the governor's office in opposition to the bill.
"The bill creates the opportunity for roads to go into areas where they are not needed," said Laurie Macdonald, Florida director of Defenders of Wildlife.
But Bush said significant safeguards are in place so that the "turnpike will continue to be a responsible builder of much-needed, locally supported, economically feasible and environmentally sound transportation projects for all of Florida's citizens, visitors and businesses."
The governor did say, however, that he is adamantly opposed to parts of the bill, including expanding the powers given to the high-speed rail planners and providing tax-exempt status to the train and associated development, such as stores and hotels. He said he plans to veto all money dedicated to the rail in next year's budget unless the tax-exempt status is removed.
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