Monday, January 22, 2018
Politics

Gov. Scott can blaze amazing trail by approving Coast-to-Coast Connector

It's disheartening how much we sometimes try to make Florida look like Everywhere Else.

We pave the state in highways and strip malls that might as well be in Ohio or Indiana — no offense to those vowel states. But what's best about this place is the Spanish moss dripping from the oaks, the old brick buildings we somehow did not mow down in the name of "progress," the beaches that are, not to brag or anything, incomparable.

If you have driven Florida, or better yet, hiked or biked it, maybe you noticed how this place changes as you move through it — beach towns and then rolling citrus groves inland, cities and then country towns where they sell fresh strawberries by the road, thick forests and Everglade swamps. Florida is placid gulf and pounding Atlantic both.

And awaiting the governor's approval is something that's all about the best we have here, and the chance to see it from the perfect perspective.

The idea is to build 72 miles of new trails that would connect to 200 miles of existing trails across the state. This would create an amazing, meandering ribbon across Florida's middle, a biking and walking path stretching from St. Petersburg through Pasco and Hernando all the way to Titusville on the other side. Imagine.

Okay, so the name "Coast-to-Coast Connector" (yawn) does not begin to capture what a cool experience this would be. That we could work on.

The big question will be the $50 million price tag in the state budget.

As the Times reported recently, a boast by promoters predicting "Central Florida will realize an annual economic benefit of $120 million" from the trail is likely based on some squishy math. But even a more modest return would be worth it.

This is a unique chance to create something very cool for our state. And sometimes the value in an amenity — in this case, the chance to really experience Florida — should be measured in more than the number of Popsicles sold or hotel rooms booked.

Not that I don't think people will come. If we build it, they will.

There is a reason they pour into Florida, and it's not just because we don't make them pay a state income tax if they stay. There is a reason they vacation here and a reason they kvetch about the humidity, hurricanes and mosquitoes and settle here anyway. Because even with generic big-box stores and ugly highways, this place can be amazing. Particularly outside.

So imagine a chance for outdoor enthusiasts, hikers, hard-core cyclists and the just-curious — including those of us who already live here — to cross Florida or even part of it. Imagine businesses — rental outfits, restaurants, campgrounds, hotels — happy to see them.

Whither Rick Scott? Yes, it is a chunk of change. But he's also been busy beefing up his image as a governor who really, really does love Florida as he's running for his second term. (Hasn't he been on an "Up With Teachers Tour!" or something lately?)

So will he be a budget hawk, or a leader willing to get behind something remarkable for this state?

I wouldn't even begrudge him the bike-helmet photo op.

Because it's not just that Florida shouldn't be like Everywhere Else. It's that there isn't anywhere quite like this. And we'd have a chance to really see it.

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