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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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New state money may complete St. Pete-Merritt Island trail

— The future of the Coast to Coast Connector, a planned 275-mile bike and pedestrian trail across Florida, is again in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott.

This year lawmakers approved $15.5 million to finally begin stitching together a patchwork of trails into one continuous path from St. Petersburg to Merritt Island.

That network includes the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, a popular segment running along an old rail line from downtown St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.

Scott vetoed $50 million set aside last year. But the project is a favorite of incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, a triathlete who’s been trying to persuade Scott to approve it this year.

Trail advocates say the completed connector will prove a boon to the state economy, creating jobs and boosting tourism and outdoor activities, which will bring dollars to local communities.

And when the whole thing is completed, bicyclists and others will have an uninterrupted shot from Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

At a news conference last year, Scott said, “I love to bike,” but added that he considered it more appropriate to fund such projects through the state Department of Transportation rather than individual bills.

Scott spokesman John Tupps didn’t hint at what might happen this time.

“Our office will work within the June 4 deadline to produce the best state budget that invests in Florida’s future and puts the state on a path toward continued job growth and opportunity for every family,” Tupps said.

Gardiner said he recently attended a groundbreaking ceremony in Titusville with Scott, who “indicated he was a strong supporter” of the trail.

The $50 million vetoed last year was intended to be spent over five years, and Scott told him he preferred the money be similarly spread out over consecutive budgets, he said.

“So history tells me we’re going in the right direction,” Gardiner said.

The $15.5 million toward the trail is included in a $216.5 million line item in the 2014-15 state budget, said Florida Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta. That entry is for “arterial highway construction” out of the State Transportation Trust Fund.

Another $11.4 million is earmarked for the connector in the Transportation Department’s tentative work plan, she added, for a total of nearly $27 million.

A separate bill (SB 2514) passed this year authorizes the department to “use appropriated funds to support the establishment of a statewide system of interconnected multiuse trails.”

The connector isn’t mentioned by name in that bill, but it does give specific priority to “an interconnected system of trails by completing gaps between existing trails.”

An economic impact study done last year for the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation estimated that areas adjoining the trail “will realize an annual economic benefit of $120 million.”

The study said the Pinellas trail “is already regarded as an important engine for economic growth” and noted that a survey of Florida trail users showed each visitor spends about $20 per visit. More than 1 million people yearly use trails in the central part of the state.

Roughly three-quarters of the cross-state byway — a little more than 200 miles — is built and open to the public. That’s because they first were independent trails.

To make one unified trail, there are eight gaps to fill. The longest is a nearly 20-mile stretch in south Sumter County. All in all, the gaps account for about 66 miles.

Current estimates range from $42 million to $74 million to complete the trail. Those figures use information from local governments and planning organizations.

The uncertainty stems in part from not knowing which right-of-way land the state will need to buy to fill the gaps, said Dale Allen, Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation president.

Allen hopes future Legislatures continue to fund the connector to completion; the finished trail is sure to stoke even more ecotourism, including running and bird-watching, he said.

“What tourist interested in doing something other than playing golf won’t be interested in active, outdoor recreation?” Allen said. “The bicyclists get all the credit, but most users are just walking these corridors.”

Holly Parker, a vice president of the Florida Trails Association, also touts the trail as a connector for two of the state’s biggest metropolitan areas — Tampa Bay and Orlando.

“And being able to go from coast to coast,” Parker said, “is going to be spectacular.”

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