Bike trail plan moving toward reality, but needs Amendment 1 funds

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Supporters of paved bicycling trails have big plans for Florida and are turning them into reality. But they also need some help from Amendment 1.

Passed in November by 75 percent of voters statewide, Amendment 1 dedicates one-third of the revenue from a tax on real estate transactions toward land and water conservation projects.

The amendment could provide $19 billion over 20 years for projects, according to state analysts, though supporters have pegged the number at $10 billion.

The state Department of Environmental Protection in 2012 adopted a 3,300-mile statewide trail plan that includes major trail networks in every corner of the state.

About 1,100 miles of trails have been paved statewide, including the Withlacoochee State Trail, the Pinellas Trail and the Overseas Heritage Trail in the Florida Keys.

New proposed trail systems would link Central Florida near Deland to Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach, Palatka to Tallahassee, St. Petersburg to Naples and several coastal communities along the Panhandle.

The Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways and Trails estimates the cost to complete the network at $2.6 billion, a DEP spokeswoman said.

Work is underway now to complete a trail system across Central Florida by 2020, said Dale Allen, president of the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation.

But there was little public or media attention paid to these statewide plans until a veto in 2013 by Gov. Rick Scott.

The governor vetoed $50 million in the state budget for the Central Florida trail, called the “Coast to Coast Connector.” The 275-mile project would link existing trails between the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Ocean.

Scott said at the time that funding for the project should go through the state Department of Transportation budget. “We love to bike,” he told reporters.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, helped get money into the budget last year and vowed to continue backing the project. And this year, Scott signed a new state budget with $16 million for the connector.

Now, the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation is asking that 10 percent of the funding under Amendment 1 be provided to complete the statewide trails system, Allen said.

“This (trail system) will be an amazing amenity for the people of Florida if it can actually be put in place and we have a funding source to allow that to happen,” Allen said during a webinar hosted by 1000 Friends of Florida.

Trail supporters could find themselves competing for money with state park supporters, hunters, agricultural landowners and wastewater utilities seeking money for sewage plant upgrades to protect springs.

In 2015, the state will be holding public meetings around the state to discuss trail plans. Allen said building support among local residents, counties and regional transportation planning agencies is key in completing the statewide trails network.

The Orlando Sentinel this month produced a three-part story package by environmental reporter Kevin Spear about his trip bicycling the entire length of the Coast to Coast Connector.

“I think when Scott vetoed it (in 2013), a whole lot of people took notice at that point,” Spear told me.

He said he’s concerned that many residents only know Florida’s environment from the windshield of their cars. He thinks the Coast to Coast Connector can change that, and he said his stories received a strong response.

“If people get the idea they can go out and do part or even all of it, they will introduce themselves to some really nice parts of Florida,” he said.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com.