Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Business

DeWitt: Bike trail funding is no turkey

It's a lot of money for a bike trail — $50 million.

That's true even for a trail with an impressive name, the Coast-to-Coast Connector, and an impressive goal: building 72 miles of trail that would join 200 more miles of trail that have already been built or funded.

It's especially true now that the Times' John Woodrow Cox has reported that the claim supporting this whopper of an investment — that the trail "will realize an annual economic benefit of $120 million" — appears to be a whopper itself.

And, though the project has the support of the state Department of Transportation, it was actually added to the budget by one lawmaker, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Winter Park, meaning a lot of people would call it a turkey.

And that means this might be one of the items stricken from the budget by Gov. Rick Scott.

But, please, governor, don't do it!

For one thing, turkeys, like kids, are more lovable if they're yours.

Two of the biggest gaps this connector would close run through Hernando County, and one of the most crucial — which would connect the Starkey Trail to the Pinellas Trail — extends into southern Pasco County.

Nice for the people who live there and — no doubt about it — nice for the businesses in these towns that bikers would be able to ride to, such as Dunedin, which happens to be one of a large number of former ghost-like downtowns that came to life once trails were built through them.

"It was huge," Bob Ironsmith, Dunedin's economic development director, said of the completion of the Pinellas Trail more than 20 years ago.

It wasn't the only cause of his town's revival, Ironsmith said, but it "gave people a reason to come downtown. It's an activity engine. … Our prime real estate is Main Street and the trail."

Speaking of real estate, will home values go up in this congested part of the state if potential buyers know they will have access to a trail through Starkey Wilderness Park and, once the corridor is complete, a long list of other scenic spots on the way to its eastern terminus in Titusville?

Common sense says they will. So do plenty of studies around the country, though the attempt to quantify trails' economic impact is always tricky, and the group that came up with the analysis supporting this project — the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation — did a disservice to the project by producing an especially flimsy study.

So, listen to Dennis Dix, Hernando's transportation planning coordinator, who says real estate and tourism dollars are not the only reason to build trails.

Dix sees them as a tool to get people around in one of the country's most lethal states for cyclists.

The 6-mile stretch of the connector between the Suncoast Trail and downtown Brooksville, for example, is a safe link between Hernando's two main population centers.

"This goes way beyond recreation," Dix said of the trail. "It's become very mainstream in the transportation planning world."

And, depending on how you look at it, maybe not even all that expensive. Filling the two local gaps would cost $3.75 million each. The cost of the entire project — actually estimated at $42 million, not $50 million — is not so bad if you see it as just finishing up a network that "is already 70 to 80 percent done," Dix said.

So, please, governor.

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