Sarasota County staff will continue negotiations for the purchase of 7.5 miles of rail corridor to stretch the trail into downtown.
With at least 90 supporters donning neon yellow shirts in the audience, Sarasota County commissioners advanced plans Wednesday to extend the Legacy Trail from Palmer Ranch northward to Payne Park by directing county staff to continue negotiations for the purchase of 7.5 miles of CSX railways.
But questions remain about how the county will pay for the project. County staff estimates the project will cost between $56 million and $60 million. At a budget meeting Friday, commissioners will discuss a range of funding options, with the most immediate need being about $20 million for the first phase of purchasing the corridor.
The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization negotiating the purchase on behalf of the county, has signed a letter of intent with CSX and lessee Seminole Gulf Railroad to buy the corridor in two payments, the first of which is supposed to come by the end of 2017.
“Even with a $20 million acquisition, it’s still a large chunk of change, quite frankly,” said Public Works Director Isaac Brownman.
Although Brownman initially identified only a referendum and the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Fund as internal funding sources, Commissioner Charles Hines said he wanted to see a presentation of a range of options, including mobility fees and tourist development taxes. And Commissioner Nancy Detert, who said receiving $15 million in state funding requested by Rep. Joe Gruters was unlikely, said she wanted staff to consider best- and worst-case scenarios.
“Hopefully by Friday, we’ll find a path to victory,” said Detert, who served eight years in the Florida House of Representatives and another eight years in the Florida Senate.
The preliminary cost estimates staff discussed Wednesday are greater than those presented as part of a 2015 feasibility study, which identified a price tag ranging from $19.2 million to $39.8 million for the entire project. Consultant Cardno had estimated the cost of acquiring the additional length of the trail would be between $318,000 and $2.6 million per mile, or $2.4 million to $19.5 million.
But resident and environmentalist Jono Miller noted during the meeting the analysis was based on the cost of the existing segment of the Legacy Trail. Land closer to the downtown core would naturally be more expensive than those in undeveloped areas of the county.
Also, the corridor in the current trail cuts through Oscar Scherer State Park, rendering it undevelopable. The 2015 report, for which the county paid $75,000, didn’t consider that variable.
A recent appraisal valued the corridor itself at $44 million, and the Trust for Public Land has negotiated that down to between $36 million and $40 million.
Before the meeting, members of the Friends of the Legacy Trail touted the tourism and health benefits of an extended trail, as well as the potential reduction of accidents between cyclists and cars.
Although commissioners didn’t make any concrete decisions on funding for the project Wednesday, they each maintained support for extending the Legacy Trail.
“This is not an expense,” Commissioner Mike Moran said. “It’s an investment in the community, if you ask me.”