Legacy Trail extension construction should start as soon as possible on segments without issues needing to be addressed, county commissioners say

Staff indicates conclusion of negotiations with Seminole Gulf Railway over Myrtle Street should conclude soon, easing Commissioner Moran’s concerns related to company’s involvement in county’s acquisition of rail line for Legacy Trail

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

Sarasota County commissioners have called for county staff to start on links of The Legacy Trail that can be completed more quickly, given voters’ endorsement last November of $65 million in bonds to pay for the North Extension of the route to downtown Sarasota, as well as to North Port.

Commissioner Alan Maio brought up the issue during his report to his colleagues during their regular meeting on Jan. 15. Calling it “my personal opinion,” Maio said, “I certainly hope — and I have no information to the contrary — that we’re not going to be bureaucratic and do [the extensions] in sequence.”

He specifically suggested that county planning for the new segments not be pegged to the building of the necessary Legacy Trail overpasses of Clark Road and Bee Ridge Road. Those structures will take a lot more time, he pointed out, because the county will have to advertise for firms to undertake the designs and then the construction.

On Nov. 6, 2018, more than 70% of the Sarasota County voters who cast ballots on the question approved the bonds. Staff explained last year that if the referendum passed, the bonds would be issued in two groups. The money will cover the purchase of the final segment of CSX Transportation rail line from Ashton Road to Fruitville Road and then the transformation of that rail line into a new part of the popular Legacy Trail. The other extension will take the Trail from Venice to the city of North Port.

Just before the end of 2017, the county acquired the other segment needed for the North Extension. That rail line section runs from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to Ashton Road.

“Maybe doing the piece between Clark and Bee Ridge, so those neighborhoods could enjoy that segment,” Maio said on Jan. 15, should be a priority.

A map shows the segment of The Legacy Trail the county purchased in December 2017. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“And, frankly,” he continued, “I’d like to see the piece started, if we can,” between Venice and North Port, “because that doesn’t have to wait for anything.”

He noted that, because of the state’s open meeting laws, his only option for sharing those thoughts with his fellow commissioners is during a public meeting. That was why he asked for the item to be on the Jan. 15 agenda.

“I would support the link going south, probably first,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded. That would reassure North Port residents “that their vote was not misplaced … and they can kind of join the party. … We would welcome North Port, and I think they’d be thrilled to see they came first for a change.”

“I agree totally,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler added. “It’s an opportunity for us to wow them.” Many North Port residents supported the bond referendum, he indicated, even though it primarily will benefit North County.

Referencing Maio’s comments, Ziegler said, “I have no interest in waiting on bridges.”

“It’s clear that there’s some direction here,” Chair Charles Hines added. “I’ll go a little bit further,” he said. The Legacy Trail extensions, he suggested, should be handled like the United States’ Transcontinental Railroad project. “We didn’t just keep going east to west,” Hines pointed out. Work began in the west, too.

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

With The Legacy Trail, Hines continued, “There is easily an opportunity to start at Payne Park,” the City of Sarasota facility in downtown Sarasota, and in North Port, he added. Then the portions of the Trail could “link up when the bridges are done.”

Hines pointed out that he had consulted with County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh about the first bond issue the board would address, noting that it “already [is] in the works.”

Hines continued, “Once we close on the [last section of the] land, let’s get to work. You’re basically putting down asphalt on an old railroad bed. That’s not difficult construction,” he pointed out. “This is a priority of the public.”

“We’re working on very detailed plans,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis responded, in recognition of the voters’ decision during the 2018 General Election. “We will be working from multiple directions.”

“Thank you,” Hines replied.

Myrtle Street/Seminole Gulf Railway issues appear close to resolution

The railroad crossing on Myrtle Street has been the focus of complaints for years. Image courtesy City of Sarasota in June 2016

When Hines asked Commissioner Michael Moran for his thoughts about the points other board members had made regarding The Legacy Trail, Moran responded that the key is “the acquisition of the land.”

Then, as he has in the past, Moran referenced problems City and County of Sarasota staff members have had in dealing with the Seminole Gulf Railway, which owns the rail line crossing on Myrtle Street. Seminole Gulf also is CSX’s lessee on the railroad line for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail.

“In the interest of good faith on this,” Moran continued, “I’m in support [of moving ahead on the links commissioners had mentioned]. But the devil’s in the details on this.”

County Administrator Lewis reminded the board members of their decision during the crafting of the current fiscal year budget to add a segment of the Myrtle Street improvements project to the county’s “Surtax 3” program, which is funded by 1 cent of sales tax approved by voters during a November 2007 referendum.

On May 25, 2018, Spencer Anderson, director of the Public Works Department, noted during a commission budget workshop that if the Myrtle Street improvements planned between Orange Avenue and Central Avenue were added to the Surtax 3 list, $3 million could be appropriated out of the revenue for the work, including lighting and sidewalks. Then another $1,150,000 could be used from the Surtax 3 railroad crossing program to supplement that funding.

This chart, included in the Jan. 16 memo to the commission, outlines the proposed timeline for the various remaining Myrtle Street projects.  ‘SGR’ stands for Seminole Gulf Railway. ‘CBDG’ stands for Community Development Block Grant. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He cautioned that the railroad money would be available only if The Legacy Trail bond referendum won voter approval that fall.

“If we own that corridor,” Anderson said of railroad line for The Legacy Trail’s North Extension to downtown Sarasota, the county would not have to worry about replacing crossings on those tracks. That would free up money for other railroad-related projects. “It gets us in a much better place.”

On Jan. 15, Lewis told the commissioners that work on the Myrtle Street project they approved for the 2019 fiscal year “has not and will not slow down.”

In a formal memo to the board, dated Jan. 16, Anderson reported that the most recent meeting between staff and Seminole Gulf Railway representatives took place on Jan. 10. The right of way design and costs “are being finalized,” the memo said, referring to the county work planned from Orange Avenue to Central Avenue; that includes the area of the Seminole Gulf railroad crossing. “Staff is planning to bring a project agreement with the [rail company] to the Board for approval in April 2019,” the memo added.

Furthermore, Seminole Gulf’s replacement of the railroad crossing “will commence in May/June 2019,” the memo continued.

The county’s construction of Phase 2C of the Myrtle Street project — from Orange Avenue to U.S. 301 — is expected to start in the fall, the memo said. That will include sidewalks on both sides of the road, street lighting and bicycle lanes, the memo pointed out.

Altogether, the estimated cost of $5,150,000 to complete Phase 2 of the Myrtle Street project “is anticipated to be available through County Surtax III and [Community Development Block Grant] funds,” the memo added.
Phase 2 also encompasses the section of Myrtle from U.S. 41 to Central Avenue. Construction of sidewalks, lighting and stormwater improvements on the south side of the road were completed in 2016, the memo noted. “Construction of similar improvements on the north side were not part of that project,” the memo said.

“I cannot thank our staff enough andthe staff at the City of Sarasota,” Moran said on Jan. 15, for all the effort that has gone into the Myrtle Street improvements.

City Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader in a Jan. 22 email, “The City’s position has been to advocate for funding and assist the county in their efforts to reach an agreement with the railroad for the improvements.”