Does one cent make sense? Transportation planners eye sales tax to help residents get ‘from point A to point B to point C’ without a car

It’ll be up to voters to extend an existing sales tax charge in Palm Beach County for transportation but the conversation broke out in public for the first time Thursday.

A powerful countywide planning body gave notice Thursday that it may push for a voter referendum to extend a 1-cent sales tax for transportation projects.

County voters approved the extra sales tax on top of the county’s 6-cent per $1 charge in November 2016 to pay for construction projects at schools and municipalities. It is on pace to sunset in 2025 or 2026 at the latest.

Keeping that penny in place could provide $270 million or more a year for transportation projects, enough to pay for a broad wish-list topped by adding a coastal commuter rail line. The money also could help pay for road projects hit by dwindling gas tax revenues.

Weinroth

County Commissioner Robert Weinroth raised the prospect Thursday during a discussion of creating bus lanes on major roads at the monthly meeting of the Palm Beach County Transportation Planning Agency board, which is made up of 21 elected officials, including five county commissioners. 

It marked the first public discussion in Palm Beach County of the concept, which has been embraced in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Board members made it clear it wouldn’t be the last.

Dedicated bus lanes cost money, Weinroth said, and at some point elected officials will have to address whether they have the “intestinal fortitude” to create a permanent, sustainable transportation tax. 

In tourist-happy South Florida, such efforts often take aim at the sales tax. While it hits locals, it also taps snowbirds and tourists. In 2016, the one penny hike to the county’s 7% sales tax was expected to raise about $270 million a year. 

Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which both have dedicated transportation taxes, are in talks about running Tri-Rail commuter trains on the Brightline rail line, which controls the easternmost Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

READ MORE: What will it take to get Tri-Rail to north county?

Such a step in Palm Beach County would cost hundreds of millions of dollars for train stations, rail sidings and parking.

But in recent years, two major steps have made it more likely to happen. Brightline is double tracking the rail line as it extends its Miami to West Palm Beach service to Orlando. And the state built a connector in West Palm Beach between Brightline’s coastal tracks and Tri-Rail’s CSX tracks, which mostly run west of Interstate 95. That would let Tri-Rail trains move east.

The conversation is coming, said Fred Pinto, a Royal Palm Beach councilman who chairs the transportation agency’s board

“Nick (Uhren, the Transportation Planning Agency’s executive director) and his staff are currently working on a presentation to hopefully present to this board to determine in a more formal sense that we agree an additional funding source needs to be provided,” Pinto said.

“If we are truly committed to expanding the public transportation capability across the county, it’s not going to happen without a funding source that would be dedicated to the endeavor and all the items that would fall under that,” Pinto said.

Later during the 20-minute discussion, Pinto told board members they have to spell out to voters what they will get for their money. 

“We’re looking to go down a different path. I think it would be considered a bold move, innovative and visionary but we need to say at the end of the day here’s what we think we’re going to deliver to our citizens and improve their quality of life in terms of their ability to get from point A to point B to point C, hopefully without having to use a car.”

Weinroth pointed out that the best time to go to voters is before the current sales tax hike runs out “because it’s going to be an easier sale to our constituents … if we’re able to substitute one pain for another,” he said.

The sales tax surcharge is on pace to reach its $2.7 billion limit in mid-2025 or early 2026, Uhren said. If tax collections slip and it doesn’t reach that amount, it sunsets automatically at the end of 2026.

A measure to extend the tax would have to go before voters in a general election, either November 2022 or November 2024.

The current tax is paying for new government buildings countywide. Over 10 years, the tax is supposed to provide $1.3 billion to the Palm Beach County School District, $810 million to Palm Beach County and $540 million to the county’s 39 cities.

The county already has collected $337 million of its share since January 2017 but collections are running below expectations since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Palm Beach Gardens issued $30 million in bonds in 2017, pledging the money from the sales tax as repayment. The money helped pay for the Gardens North County District Park, city hall expansion and a new emergency operations center.

Nobody debated Weinroth’s suggestion Thursday but he noted that “ultimately, we have to grapple with this.”

That debate is likely to begin at a coming meeting of the TPA. 

“This conversation,” Pinto said in concluding the discussion, “let’s label it: To be continued.”

Thanks for reading. Be sure to see our earlier story outlining the high cost of a coastal commuter rail line. Also our story on the projects lining up for money just to help I-95 meeting growing demand.

Copyright © 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved. 

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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