FDOT allocates $7.5 million for Legacy Trail’s North Extension in its latest five-year work program

Legislature has to approve the funding, but neither it nor the governor can delete line items from the program, county staff says

More than 175,000 people use The Legacy Trail each year, county data show. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although The Legacy Trail lost out on one source of state funding last year, it has a new chance for state support through the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Sarasota County staff has announced.

The department’s Tentative Five-Year Work Program Report, which would be in effect from July 2018 through June 2023, includes $7.5 million for construction of Phase I of the North Extension of The Legacy Trail, which will run from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to Proctor Road.

The overall distance for that segment is 1.95 miles.

Although the work program will be considered as part of the state budget process, county Media Relations Officer Jason Bartolone explained, the Legislature cannot delete specific projects and Gov. Rick Scott has no veto authority over line items in it.

The only real hitch, one might say, is that the funding is scheduled to be provided in the 2023 fiscal year.

The timeline did not dim the excitement of Colleen McGue, principal planner of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). “Once funding is included in FDOT’s work program,” she wrote in an email provided to the county, “we frequently see those projects advance. This was the MPO board’s No. 1 trail priority for the past two years, so we’re very excited to see its inclusion, and we feel confident it will become a reality.”

A graphic shows the Phase I and Phase II segments of the North Extension of The Legacy Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Bruce Dillon a long-time advocate for The Legacy Trail, told The Sarasota News Leader he also finds the news exciting. He is hopeful, he said in a Nov. 2 telephone interview, that the Legislature will approve the work program.

Dillon added that he had heard the news about the FDOT funding the previous day. “There’s a lot of support for The Legacy Trail,” he pointed out, as it draws thousands upon thousands of people to the area. “The [Florida] House and Senate have to get along [on this work program],” Dillon added.

During the Aug. 29 County Commission meeting, Andrea Seager, secretary of The Friends of the Legacy Trail, told the board that the Trail has more than 175,000 users on an annual basis.

“This is great news for our community, which has been so invested in the Legacy Trail and seeing it grow,” Patrick Lui, Sarasota County’s bicycle, pedestrian and trails coordinator, wrote about the FDOT funding in a news release. “It is rewarding to see the collaborative efforts of so many interested parties and the leadership of our County Commission coming to fruition.”

The news came about six weeks before Sarasota County — with full County Commission approval — is scheduled to pay $7.9 million to the Trust for Public Land for the first segment of CSX rail corridor needed for the Trail to reach from Culverhouse Nature Park to Ashton Road. The Trust negotiated with CSX and CSX’s lessee of the rail corridor — Seminole Gulf Railway — for the land.

The front of a Legacy Trail fact sheet produced by Sarasota County in 2016 offers an overview of the Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Aug. 29, the County Commission unanimously agreed to have County Administrator Tom Harmer conclude the transaction with the Trust. In a separate motion, the board approved a $30.1-million payment to the Trust on May 30, 2019, so the county can purchase the rest of the CSX rail corridor it needs for the North Extension to reach Fruitville Road in Sarasota. However, that payment is contingent on a referendum planned for November 2018, when the county would seek voter approval of the issuance of bonds to cover not only the $30.1 million but also the approximately $35 million necessary for converting the rail corridor to a recreational trail. The annual debt service on the bonds has been projected at $4 million, according to the staff memo provided to the County Commission. That would necessitate a millage rate increase of 0.07 mills, adding $14 a year to the property tax bill for a person with a home valued at $200,000, the memo noted.

In the meantime, the nonprofit Friends of The Legacy Trail is pursuing fundraising options the County Commission authorized in July, including naming initiatives.

When the News Leader asked Dillon — who is the vice president of the nonprofit — how those efforts were going, he replied, “Right on track.” Among the initiatives, he said, are the opportunity to purchase “your own piece of The Legacy Trail, figuratively [speaking],” and “tribute projects,” such as benches that would be placed along the bicycle and pedestrian path.

Dillon reminded the News Leader what happened after the County Commission, on April 1, 2015, made clear its commitment to acquiring the property for the North Extension: The Friends of The Legacy Trail let it be known that donations would be welcome, and “a day-and-a-half later,” Dillon said, “there was 6,000 bucks in the kitty.”

“It’s just wonderful that this is all coming together so well,” he told the News Leader on Nov. 2.