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    Summit looks at Pinellas gridlock

    Leaders talk of options for fixing transportation in Florida's most densely populated county when money is tight.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 21, 2002


    Chet Helck, the new president and chief operating officer of Raymond James Financial Inc., is moving from Atlanta to Pinellas County.

    He has a message for business leaders in his new home: He doesn't want Pinellas to become Atlanta. You know, he explained to a group of about 75 politicians and top business people Friday morning: "Great city -- terrible traffic."

    Pinellas already is too close.

    "This community stands at a crossroads where Atlanta was 20 years ago," Helck said. "Atlanta blew it. ... This community can do something about it."

    Helck spoke Friday at the Pinellas Transportation Summit, a meeting hosted by the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Raymond James, Morton Plant Mease Hospitals and Pinellas County's economic development department.

    The group took only one official action, passing a resolution encouraging Hillsborough County to move ahead with plans to improve Gandy Boulevard. That was the easy part. Most of the discussion centered on the more difficult task: how to improve transportation in the state's densest county when money is so short.

    Pinellas has $1.1-billion worth of unfunded transportation needs over the next 20 years, county officials told the group.

    But in the past, Pinellas political leaders have been unwilling to pass local taxes, chiefly a higher gas tax, to help pay for roads. State law allows Pinellas to adopts six more cents of tax per gallon of gas. Many South Florida counties have that tax already. Mark Woodard, county budget director, told the group that state lawmakers have repeatedly pointed to Pinellas' lack of such a tax.

    "The most often heard response is '... until you do that, don't expect help from us,' " Woodard said.

    Helck called on business leaders there to lend political support to finding more road funds.

    "Let's get in the game, and let's win the game," he said.

    Others at the seminar said it's past time for Pinellas to move. Julio Maggi, vice president of Echelon Development, said the county needs not only the gas tax, but other funds, such as a half-cent sales tax and a new transit system surtax as well.

    "If we're going to be a great city, we have to do what it takes to become a great city," Maggi said.

    He added that the county needs to not just pave wider roads, but also look to public transit, such as rail, and improve land-use plans to encourage more people to live along potential rail lines.

    Group members shared stories of how much bad roads have hurt their business: the daily traffic jams at Carillon Office Park, where the meeting was held; the difficulty of navigating ambulances through rush-hour traffic or past drawbridges; the time added to power outages because Florida Power trucks are stuck in traffic.

    Russ Sloan, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the best way to muster public support for passing a gas tax is to lay out a detailed plan showing which roads or transit projects could be funded.

    "You have a better chance of passing things if your taxpayers know exactly what they're getting for their money," he said.

    County commissioners can pass a higher gas tax if five of the seven members agree to do so.

    County officials and various city leaders have been discussing adding at least a penny to the gas tax for months as a way to pay for improvements on Gulf Boulevard. County Administrator Steve Spratt said he expects commissioners to look at the issue at an informal workshop in the next month or two.

    But Commissioner Bob Stewart had another explanation for why the issue hasn't come up yet: It's too controversial.

    "I would say the calendar and the elections," Stewart said. "We wanted the dust to clear from Nov. 5."

    -- Lisa Greene can be reached at (727) 445-4162 or greene@sptimes.com.

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