Though one commissioner raised concerns about funding for the multi-million dollar project, the commission unanimously approved moving forward with the extension.
County commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to move forward with the purchase of land for the extension of the Legacy Trail toward downtown, but a portion of the plan balances on voter approval in 2018.
“It’s hard not to be excited that we’re taking another giant step forward to extending the Legacy Trail,” said Roger Normand, one of the directors of Friends of the Legacy Trail, a nonprofit organization that works to improve and expand the trail.
The planned extension will come in two phases totaling about 9 miles. The trail now runs from Culverhouse Park in Palmer Ranch to Venice, a total of about 10.5 miles.
Before commissioners voted to approve the contracts, Vice Chair Nancy Detert raised concerns about the funding for the purchase of the land, construction of the trail and its upkeep. She called the trail extension a “want,” not a “need.”
“I think we’re going to look silly funding something like this if we’re cutting necessary services at our next meeting,” Detert said of the $38 million contracts.
However, the commission decided to take the next step in the project.
“The overall public benefit for this Legacy Trail, I think, is just endless,” said Commissioner Charles Hines. “I don’t want to lose the momentum of this and all the hard work it’s taken to get to this point.”
In Phase I, the county will purchase the railroad corridor between Culverhouse Park north to the intersection of Ashton Road for $7.9 million.
During a March budget workshop, commissioners reallocated funds to pay for this approximately 2-mile stretch. After an inspection, the county will purchase the land in December.
The second phase will involve the purchase of a segment of railroad corridor from the intersection of Ashton Road north to the intersection of Fruitville Road, which will cost $30.1 million.
Voters must approve funding for the purchase of this land and construction of the trail in a November 2018 referendum. If approved, the additional ad valorem tax, of 0.07 mills, or $14 for $200,000 of valuation per year for about 16 years, would generate about $65 million, the total estimated cost of the trail. If voters approve the referendum, the county would close on the purchase for this section of the trail in May 2019.
The $38 million combined price for these two contracts is for land acquisition only. It amounts to about $4.2 million per mile, or $800 per foot of trail.
“Our county is about to spend as much on bike trails for Sarasota County as the state has dedicated for the entire state,” Detert said.
Hines said the project would take more than county funding to reach fruition.
“For us to carry the whole load as the County Commission is too much,” Hines said. “The public needs to reach into their pockets ... Just to come to us and say ‘we need you to do this $60, $70 million project’ — we’re not able to carry it right now.”
The Friends of the Legacy Trail has a plan to help.
“We’re prepared to launch a fundraising effort to support the construction of the trail after the county buys it,” Normand said. “At the same time, several local foundations would be working with more substantial donors to get the next step toward construction.”
Commissioner Michael Moran asked county staff to compile a report explaining what state or federal grants might be available.
One such funding source is the Shared-Use Non-Motorized Trail Network, known as SUNTrails. In fiscal year 2016-2017, the program awarded more than $44 million to projects in 21 counties. However, there was no estimate for how much funding the county could ultimately receive.
If the County Commission approves the two contracts, Normand said it’s about more than a few miles of land — it’s about connecting different assets from different parts of the county.
“When you connect big pieces of trail, that becomes a magnet for tourists,” he said.
Interim Public Works Director for the county Spencer Anderson agrees, adding that purchasing this land would add “pedestrian and non-motorized connectivity to the north and south quadrants of the county.”
The hefty price tag for the extension has been a main obstacle commissioners faced in moving the project forward, but they’re in favor of funding something with benefits to the whole county, according to Anderson.
“The Legacy Trail is one of the top destinations not just for people coming to Sarasota County but for people who live here every day,” he said. “We have the goal of improving the work-life balance of county residents, and the Legacy Trail is certainly a conduit to do that on a daily basis.”