Sunday, May 27, 2018
Politics

$50 million Coast-to-Coast Connector marketed on shaky math

On Page 256 of the state budget, between references to Medicaid services and transportation consultants, is a short paragraph describing "The Coast-to-Coast Connector."

The connector is a planned bike trail that would run across Central Florida, linking St. Petersburg to Titusville. The state would build 72 miles of new trail to connect to 200 miles that will already exist.

The price tag: $50 million.

But the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation — a nonprofit that for 18 months traveled Florida promoting the plan on the state's behalf — produced an analysis of the connector that made a pointed assertion about its potential: "With a one-time investment of $42 million to complete the Coast-to-Coast Connector, Central Florida will realize an annual economic benefit of $120 million."

The words are underlined in bold type. They helped convince lawmakers that this was a worthy project.

The report, however, offers only a vague, convoluted justification for the figure. When confronted, the men responsible for the study — who didn't agree on what the numbers meant — provided explanations that raised more questions.

• • •

The Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation is a nonprofit that supports the missions of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Green­ways and Trails.

The connector is the organization's primary objective. In recent months, it hired North Carolina-based greenways expert Chuck Flink to review the trail's financial promise.

To explain his $120 million declaration, Flink's report refers to a study in Orange County conducted by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council.

The council found that, annually, 1.7 million people use the trails there and spend an average of $19 per visit on things like bike rentals and snacks. That adds up to about $32 million a year.

Flink's report also highlights Winter Garden, where locals have often attributed their flourishing downtown to the West Orange Trail.

"If we extrapolate this spending across the entire route of the Coast-to-Coast Connector, which traverses six Florida counties," the report says, "the potential exists to generate tens of millions in annual income from trail use."

His contention raises several questions.

According to the connector map, included in Flink's report, the trail would run through at least nine counties, not six. And Orange is in no way representative of the others.

It is packed with trails and has a population of more than 1.2 million. All but two of the nine hold fewer than half that.

Flink's report also neglected to mention the council's analysis of Seminole County, which is slated to host about a 15-mile stretch of the connector.

Money spent by visitors to Seminole's trails, the council found, generated half as much money as Orange. The council also surveyed 51 businesses near the trails. Nearly 60 percent said the trail system had no impact on their business.

Although that report was released in spring 2012, well before Flink's, he said he "didn't have access to that."

Still, Flink insisted, his projection has merit.

"We've worked in other places around the country where we're getting a 10-to-1 return on investment," he said. "We used a very conservative 3-to-1 investment."

Flink pointed to studies he did in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

In 2005, Flink and another consulting firm analyzed a proposed greenway that would run along Philadelphia's Delaware River.

An outlay of more than $150 million, the report said, would result in billions of economic benefit — a return on investment well in excess of 10-to-1.

Problem is, the ambitious greenway was never built. The return remains an estimate.

The other report Flink referenced — which examined the economic impact of the Carolina Thread Trail — made the same lofty predictions.

For $100 million, a 500-mile trail would lead to a multi-billion dollar return, but just 113 miles of unconnected paths exist today.

Flink's connector report also alludes to the 240-mile Katy Trail in Missouri, saying it "generates 10 times in annual revenue the one-time expenditure investment by the state."

That is not true.

The trail took 25 years to complete and required multiple expenditures that total several million dollars, according to a Missouri State Parks spokesperson. A study shows the trail now has an annual economic impact of $18 million, nowhere close to 10 times the state's investment.

Even Flink's interpretation of the numbers differed from that of Dale Allen, president of the foundation that hired him.

"Once the system gets to a certain length and it's completed, then the big economic benefit comes into play," Allen said.

Allen believed the $120 million was a projection of new revenue. So, for example, he said the $32 million a year coming from Orange County would not be counted in that total.

But that's not how Flink made the calculations. He said the $120 million was his total projection, and it included money already generated from existing trails.

• • •

Regardless of how much money the connector draws, many people believe the $50 million expense is well worth it.

It will promote exercise, connect towns and provide the lone safe passage on foot or bicycle from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast. "It is a lot of money, but right now we've already made a huge investment as a public," Allen said. "Connecting them together is the next logical step."

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Winter Park, agrees. Gardiner, who has supported the idea since its inception, said the dubious economic estimate has no impact on his opinion because he has witnessed the success of the Orange County trails. "Regardless of the report," he said, "I'm a believer in what I've seen."

The trail's exact price and timeline for completion remain uncertain. While state officials said it would cost $42 million, lawmakers budgeted $50 million. Officials from the Department of Environmental Protection — which designed it — and the Department of Transportation — which will install it — couldn't explain the discrepancy.

Gardiner, however, had the answer.

"Fifty," he said, "sounds better than 40."

Times staff writer Dan DeWitt contributed to this report.

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