Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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

The connector is a planned bike trail that would run across Central Florida, linking St. Petersburg to Titusville.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2011)

The connector is a planned bike trail that would run across Central Florida, linking St. Petersburg to Titusville.

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.

$50 million Coast-to-Coast Connector marketed on shaky math 05/03/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 11:17pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tributes pour in for ex-national security adviser Brzezinski


    WASHINGTON — Well before he went to the White House in 1977, Jimmy Carter was impressed by the views of foreign policy expert Zbigniew Brzezinski. That Carter immediately liked the Polish-born academic advising his campaign was a plus.

    Foreign policy expert Zbigniew Brzezinski died Friday.
  2. One year after deaths, Sunset Music Festival kicks off with emphasis on water and security

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — Before the beat drops, or even builds, you hear Steve-O.

    "If you don't get water you're lame!"

    "Hey! Free water! Come on!"

    Steve "Steve-O" Raymond motions to guests making the line to grab free water bottle at the entrance of the Sunset Music Festival on the grounds of the Raymond James Stadium parking lot in Tampa. ( LUIS SANTANA   |   Times)
  3. Twins eventually cash in as Rays lose, fall back to .500 (w/video)

    The Heater

    MINNEAPOLIS — The Rays could only battle their way out of trouble for so long Saturday afternoon before succumbing in a 5-2 loss to the Twins.

    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 27: Brian Dozier #2 of the Minnesota Twins celebrates hitting a two-run home run as Derek Norris #33 of the Tampa Bay Rays looks on during the eighth inning of the game on May 27, 2017 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Rays 5-3. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) 700010973
  4. Rays Tales: The stories behind Corey Dickerson's ascension

    The Heater

    The 25 pounds DH/LF Corey Dickerson lost during the winter through diet and exercise are considered the primary reason for his ascension to one of the American League's most productive hitters, going into the weekend leading in hits, multi-hit games and total bases, and ranked in the top five in average, runs and …

    Tampa Bay Rays designated hitter Corey Dickerson (10) connects for a sac fly, scores Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Steve Pearce (28) in the fourth inning of the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, June 15, 2016.
  5. Fans in Florida and beyond won't forget Gregg Allman

    Music & Concerts

    The end can come quickly for those who live fast and live hard, who create worlds with their talent and sometimes come close to throwing them away.

    This Oct. 13, 2011 file photo shows Gregg Allman performs at the Americana Music Association awards show in Nashville, Tenn. On Saturday, May 27, 2017, a publicist said the musician, the singer for The Allman Brothers Band, has died. (AP Photo/Joe Howell, File)