Pinellas County transit users are set to suffer some potentially crippling cuts to services as early as 2017 if something isn’t done to help the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority soon. The group has identified some minor tweaks here and there – like raising fares and increasing tax revenue – that could push cuts back until 2018, but as right now, they’re still inevitable.
The prospect of cutting hours and routes has left transit supporters searching for ideas on how to save what little service the agency currently provides.
One such idea is creating a special taxing district that would allow the City of St. Petersburg to hold its own transit referendum without having to include the rest of the county. Right now, Pinellas is the sole taxing authority.
When voters rejected the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum that would have funded PSTA to the tune of $130 million a year, $100 million a year more than what the agency currently brings in through property taxes, a map soon emerged showing who voted for it and who voted against it. The map showed support isolated to St. Pete – particularly downtown and South St. Pete. North County was shown as being almost completely against the one-penny sales tax.
This posed a question – could St. Pete venture into the world of transit on its own? The immediate answer is no, but there is an option.
Three years ago, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn had the bold idea of asking the legislature, as part of an agenda with a league of mayors comprised of some of Florida’s larger cities, to allow highly populated cities to be able to hold their own referenda. The ask went nowhere, but he’s at it again this year.
“We’re going to attempt to revive that,” he said. “[Tampa and St. Pete] would be huge beneficiaries of that ability.”
That’s because if Tampa and St. Pete could go to city taxpayers and ask for an additional tax for transit, it would be far more likely to be approved that spreading such a measure out over two counties where more conservative demographics often block such measures.
“I think you would find the urban dwellers much more supportive,” Buckhorn said.
But don’t get too excited. It would be a complicated process. First of all, each city would have to hold its own referendum. Second, the PSTA is a countywide service so it would be difficult to figure out how to use St. Pete taxpayer money to benefit exclusively St. Pete taxpayers. Likewise with Hillsborough County’s transit agency HART.
It’s a pie in the sky solution to a complex problem. Voters in Hillsborough rejected a penny sales tax for transit in 2010. Pinellas voters followed suit just a few months ago. Both defeats came despite massive funding deficits on the side of transit tax naysayers. The message, they say, is voters don’t want the tax. The map following the Greenlight vote changes that a bit.
Voters in the most populated parts of St. Pete did want the transit tax. It would have paid for increased bus service, bus rapid transit, increased ancillary services and, here’s the biggest kicker for people in downtown St. Pete, a rail line from downtown to Clearwater.
Despite that, State Senator Jeff Brandes said approval for a special taxing district to accommodate those voters is unlikely. The measure would have to be pursued the same way any other bill would. It would need to be filed by a legislator who would have to rally some co-sponsors. It would have to make its way through a number of committee stops, then pass both chambers of the legislature and still be subject to the governor’s veto pen.
“I didn’t run for office to create new taxing opportunities,” Brandes said.
St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman didn’t return phone calls asking about the option, but he was among a flurry of elected officials backing Greenlight and has since said transportation is an issue to continue pushing. In a previous interview, he told SaintPetersBlog he’d be willing to explore options at the city level, but didn’t dive into specifically what that would look like.
As for Buckhorn, he said he hasn’t spoken to any lawmakers about creating citywide taxing districts and acknowledged it would be an uphill battle to make it happen.
“If the leadership on both sides aren’t supportive of it, it’s not going anywhere,” Buckhorn said.