2 counties consider tax for mass transit

By MIKE BRASSFIELD, Times Staff Writer
Published January 23, 2008

TAMPA - Bus officials from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties met Tuesday to discuss asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax in 2010 to pay for better mass transit - which could include the beginnings of a light rail network.

There has been talk of putting the question to local voters as soon as November. But Tuesday's discussion focused on 2010. Officials know that a big marketing initiative and detailed plans would be needed to persuade voters to pass even a small tax increase.

"It's premature to ask for a sales tax unless we have a plan. If we got additional funding, how would we spend it to improve public transit?" said Tim Garling, executive director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. "It could be more frequent bus service, bus rapid transit, streetcar, light rail. It could take any number of forms."

Leaders of the PSTA and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit want to get a referendum on the ballot in both counties at the same time. Both are funded mostly by property taxes. They're proposing a deal with voters: Give us a half-cent sales tax, and we'll stop taxing your property.

The switch could more than double their budgets. Last year, PSTA pulled in $37-million in property taxes, and HART $36-million. A half-cent sales tax could bring PSTA $70-million a year, and HART $110-million.

But they say this would be the fairest way to pay for expanding mass transit. Unlike property taxes, a sales tax would affect visitors as well as locals.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or 813 226-3435.