Voters heading to the polls in November to decide the fate of the Greenlight Pinellas transit plan need to be confident that the promises being made by their elected officials will be kept.
That’s why Pinellas County commissioners were wise to enter into an agreement last week that backs up their promise to eliminate the property taxes assessed by the county’s transit authority.
If approved by voters, the expanded bus service and future rail line planned under Greenlight will be funded by a penny increase in the sales tax that is expected to generate $130 million annually. In return, the property tax rate that once funded the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which will oversee Greenlight, will be reduced to zero.
But critics of the Greenlight plan can argue that there is nothing to stop the PSTA from raising its property tax rate in future years to collect both the sales tax revenue and the property tax revenue to fund Greenlight.
To virtually eliminate that possibility, the county and the PSTA entered into an agreement that grants the county the authority to withhold those sales taxes if the PSTA raises its property tax rate. The agreement also allows the county to reassess whether the entire sales tax amount needs to be given to PSTA after its Greenlight financial obligations related to construction and infrastructure are completed down the road.
The sales tax is expected to provide about half the money needed to fund the $2.2 billion Greenlight plan, which calls for a 65 percent expansion in bus service and a light-rail line connecting Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Federal and state transportation funds will make up the difference.
The PSTA will float bonds to pay for the work, and the agreement also allows the county to withhold the sales tax revenue if the PSTA defaults on its payments or decides to abandon Greenlight.
It’s unfortunate that the county is forced to get creative in protecting against future PSTA property taxes. State lawmakers have the authority to strip the PSTA of its taxing authority in the event Greenlight passes. But a bill that would have accomplished that was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, leaving the county to find a way to assure voters they will keep their promise.
Greenlight Pinellas is a significant commitment of tax dollars worthy of intense scrutiny. Its critics are raising objections at every turn. The potential for the PSTA to raise the property tax in future years was a valid concern that the county has now firmly addressed.
We think the Greenlight plan deserves passage. It represents a first step — by the state’s most congested county — toward a mass transit system that offers choices beyond the automobile.
The first phase will provide bus service with the potential to benefit commuters, tourists, seniors and others who must now depend on cars to get around. The future light-rail line will spur economic development along its route and attract businesses and young workers.
The agreement reached by the county and the PSTA addressed a critical concern head-on. They should continue on that course until the November vote.