Nov. 6 referendum to seek voter approval of $65 million in bonds for North Extension and other improvements to The Legacy Trail

Friends of the Legacy Trail remain hard at work on ‘Square Foot Campaign’ and pledge to promote referendum

The CSX railroad line between Tuttle and Shade avenues is part of the planned North Extension of The Legacy Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On the morning of March 14, the Sarasota County Commission issued a proclamation in recognition of the 10th anniversary of the opening of The Legacy Trail. That afternoon, the board members unanimously approved a Nov. 6 referendum that would enable the county to pay the estimated $65-million expense of extending the trail to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota and complete connections to North Port and Venice.

Officially, if voters approve the referendum, the county would issue a total up to $65 million in bonds in two phases. The funds would cover the cost of purchasing the final segment of approximately 6 miles of railroad right of way from Ashton Road to Fruitville Road, plus a spur of 0.5 miles, along with the necessary improvements to create the entire stretch of Legacy Trail from Culverhouse Nature Park to downtown Sarasota.

The first 10.6-mile segment of the Trail, which begins at the Venice Train Depot, opened on March 28, 2008, Carolyn N. Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, noted during remarks to the board on March 14.

Chair Nancy Detert referred to the “very big price tag” of the bond referendum but also noted that county residents have demonstrated “lots of support” for the North Extension.

A graphic shows the two phases of the North Extension. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Andrea Seager, co-chair of the Trail Extension Committee of the Friends of the Legacy Trail, told the board prior to the vote that the nonprofit had data indicating 225,000 people used the Trail in 2017. The referendum, she continued, “is an incredible opportunity for all of us to leave a lasting legacy in this community for future generations.”

“This is true democracy,” Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out of the decision to put the referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot. “It is a big number,” he concurred with Detert. “It shouldn’t be up to the five of us to be able to make that decision.”

Brown told the commissioners that if the referendum is approved, the earliest staff foresees completion of the North Extension and connections to North Port and Venice would be Dec. 30, 2024. “This date is not a solid date,” she stressed.

The first bonds, for $35 million, would be issued in 2019, she noted. That money would cover the expense of the segment from Ashton to Fruitville, as well as the design, engineering and connections to North Port and Venice.

The County Commission voted last year to pay $30.1 million for the second phase of the North Extension, but it made the deal contingent upon passage of the bond referendum.

The railroad crossing on Myrtle Street has been the focus of complaints for years. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Just prior to the vote, Commissioner Michael Moran announced his support of the referendum but warned that the county will have to buy that second segment from CSX and its lessee, Seminole Gulf Railway. The latter, he said, is the same company with which county and City of Sarasota leaders have negotiated unsuccessfully for decades to improve the railroad’s Myrtle Street crossing. Yet, the improvements, he said, would constitute “a very simple project that would give tremendous relief” to residents of north Sarasota.

While people can argue that the North Extension and the Myrtle Street projects are completely separate, Moran added, “it is going to take lots of discussion for me to feel comfortable doing a $30-million land deal” when Seminole Gulf Railway representatives have allowed the Myrtle Street crossing to deteriorate to the point that some vehicles’ taillights literally pop out when people drive over that section of the railway.

A second bond issue would come in 2020, Brown told the board. “Construction could begin at that time, or perhaps a little later.”

The county’s Office of Financial Management, she said, had provided figures for the amount of additional property taxes the owner of a $200,000 home would pay, if those bonds are issued. The homeowner would see an increase of $9 on the November 2019 tax bill, Brown continued; that would rise to $16 from 2021 through 2039, and then it would drop to $7 in 2040.

Along with the debt service, she said, the annual expense of maintaining and operating the North Extension and its connections has been estimated at $130,000.

Funding help

Brown did have good news about potential state funding assistance. Just that day, she noted, staff had received confirmation that the Florida Department of Transportation has included $7,750,000 in its tentative work program for fiscal years 2019-2023 for the North Extension. If that work program is approved in June, she added, the county would receive the money in fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

The state assistance would reduce the amount of money the county would need to borrow, she emphasized.

Additionally, staff submitted an application to the state in December 2017 for $4.2 million that would be used for funding the Clark Road overpass for the North Extension. If that application wins support, she said, the funds would be provided to the county in the 2023-24 fiscal year. However, Brown noted, the county could request earlier receipt of the money to coincide with its construction timeline.

A 2016 county fact sheet includes these maps of The Legacy Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out that people often ask why the county needs $65 million for The Legacy Trail North Extension. The reason, he continued, is that it will include not only the Clark Road overpass but one for Bee Ridge Road as well. Those are seven-lane roads, he stressed, and, under state regulations, the overpasses have to be strong enough to support the weight of a rescue squad in the event someone needs medical help while riding or walking on them.

“That is correct,” Brown responded.

One other potential reduction in the amount of money the county will need to borrow may come thanks to the Friends of The Legacy Trail. In December 2017, after the county paid the Trust for Public Land $7.9 million for the segment from Culverhouse Nature Park to Ashton Road, the Friends group began a “Square Foot Campaign.” That allows someone to “purchase” his or her own square foot of the North Extension. To-date, that initiative has raised $38,558 in the form of 321 donations, the Friends’ website says.

Steve Martin, who is heading up the campaign, told The Sarasota News Leader in a March 13 telephone interview that he and other members of the nonprofit are making countless public appearances at events such as farmers markets throughout the county. “We’re doing pretty well,” he said. “The donations are just kind of coming in steadily.”

The Friends of the Legacy Trail website explains the Square Foot Campaign. Image from the website

They are spreading the word that a person who contributes to the campaign gets a certificate of appreciation with the GPS coordinates of his or her own square feet of the Trail, Martin pointed out. People especially are motivated by the idea that they can go stand on area they “own,” he added.

“I’m going to hurry up and buy one before the price goes up,” Chair Detert joked just before the commission vote on March 14.

Martin told the News Leader that one Friends board member has suggested that at some point, “we’re going to have a party with chalk,” during which people who have paid for their square feet will go out on the rail corridor and mark those areas.

Furthermore, he said, the nonprofit has created a map so it can show people where The Legacy Trail is. “It’s surprising,” he added, “how many people do not know about what is happening with The Legacy Trail.” The maps have proven quite helpful, he noted.

On March 14, members of Friends of the Legacy Trail join Commissioner Charles Hines (sixth from left) and county staff in marking the upcoming 10th anniversary. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Martin was among a group of Friends representatives present for the 10th anniversary recognition on the morning of March 14. Commissioner Hines, who presented the proclamation, mentioned the “bright yellow shirts” the members of the group were wearing. “They look great on TV,” he said.

Roger Normand, a member of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Legacy Trail, explained that the nonprofit picked yellow because “the safest part of cycling is to be seen. … We wanted to promote high visibility.”

The back of each shirt, Normand added, has the slogan, “Keep heading north on the Legacy Trail.”

“We pledge that we will work diligently until Nov. 6,” Seager told the commissioners during her March 14 comments. “We will put on our yellow shirts and speak to anyone who will listen to us …”

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