CLEARWATER — Just what words might best convince residents to raise taxes on themselves?
Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday hammered out ballot language they hope will persuade Pinellas residents to tack on an extra penny to the county’s 7-cent sales tax to pay for a massive expansion of the county’s transit network.
The wording chosen steers clear of the somewhat politically charged term “light rail,” even though that is widely expected to be the rail component used to link Clearwater to downtown St. Petersburg. Instead the ballot will use the more generic “passenger rail service.”
That term will give Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority more flexibility, said CEO Brad Miller.
“It is open in case some new kind of more efficient technology comes out,” he said.
“Passenger” was added so resident know the tax will not be used for freight and “local” added so voters know they are not being asked to support a high-sped rail link to Orlando, he said.
The ballot language favored by commissioners was drawn up by PSTA attorneys.
Commissioners said they liked that it lists what voters will get for their extra taxes before stating that it will come from sales tax, which is already mentioned in the ballot title.
State law does not give county leaders many words to play with. The ballot must include a summary of no more than 15 words and a description of no more than 75 words.
The proposed ballot title chosen by commissioners states “Levy of Countywide One-Percent Sales Surtax to Fund Greenlight Pinellas Plan for Public Transit.”
The ballot summary asks residents to approve the tax to pay for “bus rapid transit, increased frequency and extended hours, local passenger rail and regional connections.”
Commissioners’ final vote on Dec. 10 to move ahead with the referendum will likely mark the beginning of a major battle to win over residents. Construction and real estate companies, in conjunction with local chambers of commerce, are expected to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign pass the measure.
Opposition is expected to come from local tea party members and others opposed to raising taxes.
At stake will be the future of mass transit in the county.
If approved, property taxes that subsidize PSTA will be replaced by a penny sales tax, boosting the agency’s annual funding by roughly $100 million.
The 30-year plan would drastically expand bus services, adding more routes and running more buses to encourage passengers to leave their cars at home. It would include bus rapid transit, road lanes dedicated for bus travel only. The 24-mile rail network from Clearwater to St. Petersburg would cost an estimated $1.6 billion.
If voters reject the expansion, PSTA would continue to be funded by property taxes. Despite record levels of ridership, PSTA leaders say they would have to slash existing bus services by roughly 30 percent since the agency has been using up reserves for the past few years.
Transit advocates who attended the meeting applauded the county for moving forward with the referendum.
“We’re extremely supportive of everything you are doing,” said Katie Franco, a senior vice president with the Tampa Bay Partnership. “You really are leading an entire region on this and we support you.”