Katie and Matt Hart walk with their two children, Ellie and Lincoln and their dog, Maddie.
The helmets you see along the final phase of Legacy Trail's northern extension these days aren't the kind typically worn by cyclists or skaters. Unless their owners are commuting to a construction job.
Following a year in which miles and access points were added to Sarasota County's popular rails-to-trails route, one of the most highly anticipated expansions will wrap up by spring, more than two years earlier than first planned, making the pathway into an even more useful attraction and a potentially more than just a fun day in the sun.
The nearly 3-mile segment linking Fruitville Road, Payne Park and the neighborhoods around Ringling Boulevard to Bahia Vista Street is next to open, likely by the end of March, curving from the more inland path, across Beneva Road and Tuttle Road past Sarasota Springs and into downtown.
As the hard-hat work on the northern extension continues, different kinds of users are enjoying the segment that now begins at Bahia Vista Street and heads south in a continuous route to Venice.
"We already are seeing the use of the trail significantly increase and it be diversified in how it's being used,'' said Nicole Rissler, the director of Sarasota County's Department of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources. "You see people just taking a walk after dinner with their dog, or with their kid on their scooter, where the original trail was very bicycle heavy.''
While limited to daylight use (there are no plans to light the trail, Rissler said, in a nod to residential areas nearby), the trail's connection to Ringling Boulevard west toward the bay also is gaining momentum from a city of Sarasota project designed to make a cyclist's ride a safer and more continuous experience.
Sarasota city leaders in 2021 supported a plan to link the trail to the bayfront, first with restriping work and plastic bollards to create the protected bike lanes. That $900,000 conversion is expected to wrap up about the time the Legacy Trail's northern segment is finished.
A more robust makeover would involve more intensive construction to permanently redesign the roadway in a thoroughfare shared with cyclists and motorized traffic. That buildout could cost $10 million and take five to 10 years. Funding is not yet available, though the project is among the city's top transportation priorities.
The goal is to connect with multi-use trails that lead over the Ringling Bridge to St. Armands Circle, Lido Key and Longboat Key. The city also is prioritizing a remake of the aging Coon Key Bridge, on the eastern approach to St. Armands as part of that grander vision.
"We do believe that people will use it as you come down into downtown Sarasota,'' Rissler said. "I think the one drawback to that will be that the trail does have hours of 6 a.m. to sunset.''
A year of ribbon cuttings
In early December, Sarasota County cut the ribbon on the Legacy Trail's Ashton Trailhead, located between Sawyer and McIntosh roads. More than just a parking lot to load and off-load bikes, the spot features restrooms, picnic shelters and grills, a playground and a self-service bike repair station.
The 2.53 acre site was acquired by the county in 1985 for $55,400.
It's the first of three trailheads designed and built to connect with Legacy Trail. Other parks along the trail, particularly in the south end of the county, existed before the trail was built and were simply modified with access points.
"I have friends that have children that say, 'holy moly, the incredible playground at Ashton is amazing','' Rissler said.
In July, the county opened the first extension phase, a standalone section between Proctor Road and Bahia Vista Street.
In October, the standalone section was linked to the trail's previous northern end in Palmer Ranch.
Included in the $65 million were plans to build a series of parks to serve as trailheads for the new trail segments. In all three cases, the intention was to create community centers more than just access points.
"What I think is incredible about this project and the community is that they didn't just get this incredible linear regional park, they're getting three new community parks out of it as well,'' Rissler said.
Sarasota Springs Trailhead (Along Webber Road): The Sarasota Springs Trailhead got its name from the neighborhood in which it is located.
The trailhead will sit on a 1.6-acre property that was acquired through the county’s Neighborhood Parklands Acquisition Program. Purchased in April 2020 for $188,000.
The trailhead park will include parking, restrooms and a playground.
It's anticipated to open when the trail section opens through downtown.
Pompano Trailhead (Between Tuttle Avenue and Beneva Road): The Pompano Trailhead comprises 5.1 acres and was acquired by the county in 1964.
It previously was leased to the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles department for use as a Department of Motor Vehicles site. After the DMV closed, the property reverted to county management.
The old DMV building will be converted into community center that will house park offices and meeting spaces. The trailhead park also will include 12 pickleball courts.
Pompano Trailhead is expected to open with all of its facilities in the summer of 2022.
Sections for wheels and sections for feet: Rissler said the new sections of trail are designed to perhaps one day widen the path along the former railbed to create lanes for cyclists and lanes for walkers and runners.
The concept isn't yet funded, but the idea has merit, she said.
"We had looked at and planned for that originally because we knew the dynamics of the northern portion were going to be different,'' she said. "It just didn't happen that way with the budget. But if you go out there in certain areas, you can see that the berm was built much larger because we anticipated it. You can see where people are already using the berm in the grass to the side.''
Rissler said the project, along with the North Port extension to the south, figures to make Legacy Trail one of the top such trails nationally. Without voter support and support from groups such as Friends of the Legacy trail, the extensions likely would never have happened.
"I think you saw that certainly at the ballot box, when over 70% of this community said, 'I'll tax myself to get this amenity done,' '' she said. "And so that's a testament to this community and how much they believe that recreation and these type of amenities are important to their quality of life."
She said not long after the original trail opened that discussions arose about extending it along the existing rail line. She said that community and volunteer support is what ultimately made the difference.
"I just feel very blessed to be able to be here during this time and that we all can to look back in years to come to say, 'we have Siesta Beach, we have Nathan Benderson Park and we have Legacy Trail,'' she said. "And I can't think of three more diverse, amazing amenities that one community has here.''