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Andy Gardiner: Coast-to-Coast Connector Picking Up Speed

January 13, 2014 - 6:00pm

Vetoed by the governor last year, an effort to link both coasts with a bicycle and pedestrian path across Central Florida is on the move again in the Legislature.

Just expect lawmakers to take smaller steps as the state works to complete the course.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who has included the completion of the 250-mile Coast to Coast Connector as one of his priorities as he prepares to become Senate president in November, said last week he has received support from Gov. Rick Scott for the project.

Thankfully, the governor in his wisdom has seen we can get to our goal and spread it out a little bit over time, Gardiner said during the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee meeting Thursday.

Gardiner pointed to Scott expressing support for the paved trail in October while attending the groundbreaking in Brevard County for a project to close one of the remaining gaps in the connector. The connector is to eventually link the Pinellas Trail in St. Petersburg with the Space Coast.

"In my discussions with the governor hes continued to show a commitment," Gardiner said. "While some may say, What a coincidence its in Central Florida, in many ways Id love to say all weve done is take the good work of the MPOs (metropolitan planning organizations) and cities and others and look at the gaps. Thats where we can be helpful."

Work on a .6-mile section in Titusville -- which includes a highway overpass -- proceeded as the state Department of Transportation moved up $3.6 million in funding for the project in its work program, with local communities taking responsibility for the future upkeep.

The governor's office on Monday pointed to a press release from October in which Scott called the Titusville project "a critical segment in the Coast-to-Coast Connector."

Legislators last year allocated $50 million to cover the cost of completing the entire connector, with the money actually expected to be spread out over five years in the DOT work program, which is a blueprint for future transportation projects.

However, Scott vetoed the line item in May, stating in a veto letter that the budget item would be outside the DOT's normal prioritization system. Scott added in the letter that despite being "worthwhile," the connector "can be built incrementally and consistent with a prioritization of gaps in the existing trail system."

Since the veto, the DOT added the work in Brevard and $10.1 million for construction of a 10.5-mile section of trail in Volusia County to its work program for the current year.

DOT Office of Policy Planning Director Jim Wood said Thursday that while the trails provide strong recreational value, the DOT supports the connector and similar pedestrian proposals because of their role in transportation.

"Pinellas Trail, one of the most used trails in the country, roughly two-thirds of its use is for nonrecreational use," Wood said. "So its for people trying to get from place to place."

The 38.2-mile Pinellas Trail runs north from St. Petersburg through Gulfport, Largo, Clearwater, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs.

Pinellas County estimates that 70,000 people use the trail monthly and support at least 13 bicycle and rental shops located along the trail.

After the two eastern gaps are filled, the envisioned multiuse connector still would require the construction of approximately 39 miles of pavement to link the Pinellas Trail to 13 existing trails in Pasco, Hernando, Lake, Orange, Seminole, Volusia and Brevard counties.

The cost for the remaining work listed as "to be constructed," encompassing 39 miles, is estimated at $30.3 million.

"These trails have been reaching out to one another over the years," Wood said.

The largest gap remains a 30-mile stretch that cuts through Sumter County, linking existing trails in Hernando County and Lake County.

Dale Allen, president of the Florida Greenways & Trails Foundation, said the trail will help draw eco-tourists year-round and dispel some of Floridas image as not being bicycle and pedestrian friendly.

"Its known in the tourist community that were a dangerous state. This will help us change that dynamic," Allen said. "This will give the state of Florida something major to advertise."

Allen added that eventually the Coast-to-Coast Connector is envisioned as being linked to the Northeast coast connector that is to run from Fernandina Beach through Jacksonville and down to the Coast-to-Coast, and another bike and pedestrian trail that would travel from Hillsborough County south to Naples.

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