Trail of the Month: November 2011
Florida's Seminole-Wekiva Trail
When most people think of Orlando, they picture the Magic Kingdom. Disney World may be the magnet for most visitors to this central Florida metropolis, but if you're a trail enthusiast—or if you need an escape from Mickey and the gang—you'll find a wealth of rail-trails in the area worth exploring.
One of the most popular is the Seminole-Wekiva Trail, a 14-mile rail-trail north of town that not only offers a pleasant recreational outlet but provides a safe commuting route and a boost for the local economy—all while linking scenic areas and tracing part of the region's history.
A century before Disney World opened in 1971, central Florida was experiencing its first boom—as an important agricultural area. The removal of the state's Seminole Indian inhabitants and the end of the Civil War brought a wave of settlers to the area, drawn by its rich soil and warm climate. Citrus soon became the king of crops here, and growers needed fast, efficient means to move their harvests to markets.
In the 1880s, a Russian immigrant named Peter Demens took over a struggling, nascent railroad—the Orange Belt Railway—and laid tracks from Lake Monroe (north of Orlando) to the Gulf of Mexico. At the western end of the line, he helped establish a new seaport and named it after the city of his birth: St. Petersburg.
The 114-mile line was, at the time, one of the longest narrow-gauge railways in the world. Ownership of the railway changed hands several times during its early years, and subsequent owners converted the tracks to standard gauge. Trains continued to haul produce and passengers along these tracks until the 1970s, when the line finally succumbed to the rise of trucks and cars as the preferred means of shipping produce and tourists.
Thanks to the foresight and work of local citizens and government officials, sections of the former Orange Belt Railway have been turned into rail-trails during the past two decades. In the Orlando area, both the West Orange Trail and the Seminole-Wekiva lie on these historical tracks. These two rail-trails, together with the newer (and as yet incomplete) Cross Seminole Trail, form the backbone of the greater Orlando area's growing and increasingly interconnected multi-use pathways—a world-class resource often overshadowed by the region's heavily marketed theme parks.
The Seminole-Wekiva Trail—the name of which derives from both the native inhabitants and the nearby Wekiva River—travels through rural, residential and commercial areas as it passes through the communities of Altamonte Springs, Longwood, Lake Mary and Sanford. It also bisects a hi-tech corridor in Heathrow, with its office buildings, restaurants and hotels. By stitching together these living and working areas, the Seminole-Wekiva serves as an important transportation corridor for local residents, who take a majority of the 400,000 trips on this trail each year.
Despite its route through some heavily developed areas and its location in a sub-tropical climate, the trail manages to keep its cool, says Seminole County Greenways and Natural Lands Manager Bryan Nipe. "The majority of it is shaded with a canopy of trees, so in summer you can get out there when it's 100 degrees elsewhere. It provides a respite for people to get out and ride for health purposes or social or recreational purposes."
The trail's proximity to the Wekiva River, a federally designated 'Wild and Scenic River,' also provides opportunities for viewing wildlife. "You'll see a pretty good variety of animals—deer, hawks, turkeys, eagles," says Nipe. "I had a call the other day about a mother bear and her cubs crossing the trail—we've got a big population of black bears in the area, but they're pretty docile."
In addition to this important aesthetic benefit, the trail provides a significant boost to the local economy, Nipe points out. As is nearly always the case with rail-trails, the Seminole-Wekiva has increased the value of existing properties adjacent to the trail. "We've also found that hotels tend to locate on or near the trail—because it allows their visitors to get out and exercise or walk to local restaurants or meeting spaces," says Nipe.
It also has proven to be a lure for college teams that travel from northern states to hold soccer, softball, tennis and lacrosse tournaments in Florida, Nipe says. "One of the reasons we can outcompete neighboring counties and cities is that we have the trails," he says. "It's a big draw—the folks visiting have the opportunity to get from parks located on trails back to their hotels without a vehicle." These sports tournaments provide an annual $20 million boost to the local economy.
The Seminole-Wekiva has also helped pave the way for the development of other trails in the area, says Jorge Borrelli, a landscape architect and competitive cyclist who has lived in greater Orlando since 1987. "It was one of the first major trails in the county," says Borrelli, whose firm helped design the path. "Now Seminole County is one of the leading counties in the state—if not the nation—in terms of trail development."
Officials in Seminole County are working with their counterparts in other Orlando jurisdictions to link up various trails (including the Seminole-Wekiva) into a bicycle-and- pedestrian beltway of sorts: the 200-mile Central Florida Loop. "I'm excited about that and the momentum it's generated," Borrelli says. "The main thing is to keep the funding coming and the vision of a statewide interconnected system alive." Borrelli, an active equestrian, has a long history of partnering with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) on dozens of successful trail projects throughout the state, including such iconic trails as the Pinellas Trail and the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail.
Ironically, one of the main threats to future funding for both the Central Florida Loop and other rail-trail efforts around the country comes from this area: U.S. Representative John Mica, the congressman whose district includes Seminole County.
Rep. Mica, chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is pushing to eliminate dedicated federal investment in trails, biking and walking. As committee chair, Mica one of the most influential leaders in federal transportation policy, yet his positions are out of step with his constituents. In recent months, local officials throughout his district have passed 10 resolutions supporting federal funding for biking and walking.
"It's a shame that our one-time champion, Mr. Mica, has cast trails aside for partisan politics," says Ken Bryan, Florida state director for RTC. "Despite this abandonment, local governments such as Seminole, Volusia and Orange counties are stepping up to the plate to make this amazing trail system happen. It will serve as an economic engine for the region and ensure as many people as possible can safely walk and bicycle around their communities."
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