Bright Days Ahead: $Millions Shine on a Promising Future for Florida Trails
UPDATE – Oct. 20, 2016: The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) recently awarded more than $44.4 million to 45 trail projects across 21 counties through its Shared Use Nonmotorized (SUN) Trail program! Twenty-two projects will help advance two major regional trail systems, including the Coast to Coast Connector and the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop. RTC has been actively advocating for both projects since the early-mid-1990s—when they were in the form of just individual trails and had not yet been extended to regional trail systems. Check out the blog below, originally published on July 21, 2016, for more details on these and other game-changing trail initiatives RTC is focusing on in Florida. To view a map of the 45 funded projects across Florida, check out FDOT's Oct. 11 press release.
Excited and reserved. This is how I’d describe RTC’s Florida Field Office director of 24 years, Ken Bryan, in a recent discussion about trail development in the Sunshine State.
He’s excited about Florida’s recent decision announced in March to award $50 million in SUN Trail Network funding (from an expected pot of $125 million), approximately two-thirds of which will go to two massive trail systems spanning more than 535 combined miles and ultimately lead to their completion. And he’s reserved because—as he maintains—“the job is only half done.”
But Bryan is optimistic, too, and it’s the future to which he’s fixed his focus, as RTC helps move Florida toward a statewide system of trails that impact economic development, active transportation and community health. Here’s a quick glance at what’s going down in Florida and why Bryan and local trail advocates in the Sunshine State are looking up to a brighter future.
Finishing a Trail and a Loop (SUN Trail Network Advances)
In 2015, Florida authorized $125 million over five years for the developing SUN Trail Network through the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). In the spring, it was announced that FDOT awarded approximately two-thirds of the funds to two major projects.
One-third will help complete the Florida Coast to Coast Trail, a 275-mile trail system that will span the entire width of the state from St. Petersburg in the west to Titusville in the East. The network incorporates well-established rail-trails such as the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, West Orange Trail and Withlachoochee State Trail, and smaller connecting trails, many of which will be completed as a result of the SUN Trail dollars.
Another third will help complete the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop, a 260-mile-plus trail network that extends from St. Augustine to Titusville (where it connects to the Coast to Coast Trail) and loops west to Deltona and up through Palatka. The route also follows part of the East Coast Greenway (along the Atlantic Coast), which will one day connect Maine to Florida, as well as rails-trails such as the East Central Regional Rail Trail and Palatka-to-St. Augustine State Trail.
The final third of the pot is going toward individual projects throughout the state via competitive grant process.
“We now know that the Coast to Coast Trail and St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop will be completed. These are victories, but our job is only half done,” says Bryan, adding that he and his fellow advocates in Florida originally set out to secure $250 million in SUN Trail funding, and that the new funds must be renewed each year by the state legislature. “We need to finish the job. By growing the pot bigger, we are going to make sure more trail projects have the opportunity to compete in this program and that the needs of trail managers are met.”
To that end, Bryan says RTC has added new advocacy resources to its team and has solidified plans to continue to push for a further continuance of the SUN Trails Network program. “We suspect that the program will last longer than five years; our hope is that as one project gets completed, another one can slot into place.”
Making Magic in Miami
Of course, there are other project priorities in Florida, not the least of which is the Miami Loop, a 190-mile system of existing and proposed trails that, when complete, will create a seamless biking and walking connection between neighborhoods, health-care facilities, schools, parks and public transportation in Miami-Dade County (Florida’s most populous county).
“The system offers a range of trail experiences from urban to rural,” notes Bryan.
Highlights include the Atlantic Greenway in South Beach—which provides stunning ocean views as it parallels the Atlantic Coastline—and The Underline and Flagler Trail, which are rail-with-trail facilities that interact with passenger rail and dedicated busway service to form a north-south backbone from Broward County south to Monroe County. It will also be the only countywide system that connects two national parks: Biscayne and Everglades.
Other key connections include Downtown Miami, museums, cultural centers, the Port of Miami and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Miami received $5 million in earmarks for trails in the 2016 state legislature—a funding source Bryan says is a rising local funding trend critical for community projects in South Florida. Traditionally, South Florida has been overlooked by state trail funding sources. Bryan is hoping this trend of the state legislature to advance trail projects in Miami will continue in 2017—as Miami rises on RTC’s list of priorities in the Sunshine State.
Bryan also mentions RTC’s work to advocate for increasing the Florida Communities Trust program (now managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Projection), in which no less than 5 percent shall be used for trail systems, but which hasn’t received substantial funding in recent times (receiving only $10 million in 2016). It’s this source Bryan says is critical for local governments seeking to purchase land for trails and greenways, adding, “You don’t have to sit there and wait for a piece of property to be acquired by a state agency. You can control your own destiny. It is an invaluable type of support for trail projects that may not be current statewide priorities but are important as community connectors.”
There are many funding programs on RTC’s radar, and it’s safe to say that RTC’s advocacy efforts will remain squarely focused on the green—the type that will continue to make the state’s greenways and rail-trails thrive.
“We are working on a whole toolkit of programs,” says Bryan. “Some of them aren’t robust in and of themselves, and they are independent of each other in how they are managed, but collectively they all continue to play an important role together in making Florida’s trail networks grow and thrive, today and in the long-term future."