Ridership on existing Legacy Trail could set new mark this year
The portent of a delay in construction of The Legacy Trail connector from North Port to Venice, because of issues raised by staff of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, recently prompted Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to express frustrations in a letter to the agency’s executive director.
As a result of follow-up discussions, The Sarasota News Leader has learned, the county’s concerns appear close to a resolution.
At the same time, with more people taking advantage of outdoor county amenities during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the nonprofit Friends of the Legacy Trail has documented an increase in ridership on the segment long open between Venice and the Culverhouse Nature Center on Palmer Ranch. Based on a News Leader review of the latest data, if the monthly trends continue, a new mark could be set this year for use of the Trail.
A little more than a year ago, during a joint meeting of the Sarasota County and North Port city commissions, the director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) unveiled the preferred connector of The Legacy Trail extension from Venice to North Port.
Nicole Rissler said that a consultant’s analysis had concluded that the connector would travel along the boundary of the Schewe Tract property owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), south of Interstate 75. Then, upon reaching the northeast corner of the Schewe Tract, The Legacy Trail would turn south and run along the eastern boundary of the property until the connector entered Deer Prairie Creek Preserve. The latter natural area is jointly owned by SWFWMD and the county.
Ultimately, PRNR staff and the commissioners have expressed hope that the extension will terminate at Warm Mineral Springs, with a link to West Price Boulevard in North Port.
Very soon after county citizens approved the $65-million Legacy Trail bond referendum on the November 2018 General Election ballot, county commissioners began urging county staff to construct the flat portions of the North Extension of the Trail — from Culverhouse Nature Park to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota — and the North Port connector.
Yet, according to an Oct. 5 letter County Administrator Lewis sent to Brian Armstrong, executive director of SWFWMD, the construction timeline and other details of the North Port connector had not been finalized because of concerns raised by SWFWMD employees.
Lewis advised the County Commission about the issues, prompting Commissioner Charles Hines to respond via email, “This issue needs to be closed and the Trail needs to get going.”
In his Oct. 5 letter, Lewis pointed to county staff’s inability over the past two years to develop an agreement with SWFWMD that would allow the county to use the Schewe Tract for the North Port connector “and identify management responsibilities once the trail is complete.”
The plans for the North Port addition, Lewis wrote in his letter to Brian Armstrong, SWFWMD’s executive director, are at the 60% mark, “and we have started on the permitting process.”
“At this point,” Lewis continued, “we have two topics that we could use the District’s help in addressing.”
The first, he noted, would be the completion of the management agreement, which would allow the county “to construct, operate and maintain the trail proposed for the Schewe Tract. This is a critical step that needs to be completed as we move into the construction phase early next year,” Lewis pointed out.
The second topic, he wrote, “is in regard to the trail itself.” He added that during SWFWMD reviews of the connector construction plans at the 30% and 60% marks, “district land management staff inquired about the load capacity for the bridges to be constructed over Deer Prairie Creek slough and the City of North Port’s R36 canal. The current design for both spans,” he continued, is for 11-ton bridges. “This capacity was determined to accommodate emergency vehicles.”
However, Lewis pointed out, “District land management staff requested that the county consider increasing the bridge capacity to 36 tons for the bridge over the Deer Prairie Creek slough,” and the SWFWMD staff wanted the county to increase the capacity to 15 tons for the bridge over the canal.
SWFWMD staff told county staff, Lewis noted, that the requests were made “to support District land management efforts and allow for better wildfire response.”
County staff and representatives of the Kimley-Horn firm in Sarasota, which the county hired as the engineering consultant for The Legacy Trail expansion — along with employees of the Jon F. Swift Inc. firm in Sarasota, which is overseeing the construction of the North Extension and which will take charge of the North Port connector, as well — met with SWFWMD land management staff, Lewis continued. “During our conversation it was determined if we were going to increase the bridge load limit, we would also need to make changes to the trail surface to support the increased weight of heavy equipment.”
Lewis added, “Although we do not have a final estimate, our contractors indicated these changes would likely have a rough order of magnitude cost of $1 million. These proposed changes are not within our current budget and we have concerns that making these changes at this point in the project threatens our current schedule.”
Except for the two overpasses that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has agreed to construct for the North Extension — over Bee Ridge and Clark roads — staff has told the public that the North Extension of The Legacy Trail should be finished by the end of 2021. The goal for the North Port connector, PRNR Director Rissler has pointed out, is completion in the winter of 2022.
“I am unsure,” Lewis continued in his letter, “if the District has the financial resources that would support its request to enhance this vital project. If we are to stay on schedule, we would need to know the District’s options by November 1, 2020. This will allow the engineers sufficient time to design the upgrades … for the planned January 1, 2021 advertisement for bids. It is our intention,” Lewis added, to have a construction contract approved by the County Commission no later than March of 2021.”
Lewis’ administrative assistant, Linda Benanti, sent a copy of the letter to the commissioners on Oct. 6. The following morning, Commissioner Charles Hines offered his response to Lewis, adding, “[W]hat can the Commission do to get this resolved?”
Lewis replied within about 10 minutes, writing that, after he sent the letter, “I had a great conversation [on Oct. 5] with Brian the [SWFWMD] executive director. He was not in the loop,” Lewis added. “He agreed to dig into it.”
The SWFWMD response
In an Oct. 14 letter, formally responding to Lewis, Ellen Morgan Morrison, assistant bureau chief for SWFWMD’s Operations and Land Management Bureau, took an opportunity first to express recognition of “the importance of the Legacy Trail to Sarasota County” and “to reassert [the District’s] support as well as [its] pledge to continue [its] successful partnership [with the county] and bring this project to completion for the use and enjoyment of the general public.”
Morrison then reviewed the timeline of meetings conducted between SWFWD and county representatives, noting that, on Aug. 26, the “parties met … to discuss the estimated cost increase for the expanded bridge capacities, which as you correctly stated, [could] potentially reach $1 million.”
After that meeting, she continued, “and in light of the substantial cost associated with increasing the bridge capacities along with budgetary constraints, the District began re-evaluating its request as well as evaluating alternative opportunities that would improve District access for safety and management.”
In fact, Morrison pointed out to Lewis, “We were completing our evaluation of alternative access options when your letter of October 5, 2020, was received.”
As a resolution to Lewis’ concerns, she added, SWFWMD proposed the following facets of either the design plans or the management agreement, “as appropriate”:
- The bridges will remain as designed in the 60% plans, “and the parties will evaluate the opportunity to install low water crossings on the south side of the Trail near the interstate,” with that to be addressed as part of the 90% plans for the connector.
- The creation of a 15-foot strip of grass, “preferably on each side of the [T]rail … to accommodate passing of recreational users when necessary.” If that area cannot be provided on both sides, “then, at a minimum,” a 15-foot strip on the western and southern sides of the paved Trail would be required, she wrote.
- The county would be responsible for maintenance and mowing of the Trail and the adjacent strips, as well as maintenance and repair of the bridges and the low water crossing.
- Finally, “designated and dedicated access points to the Trail” would be necessary.
Morrison also told Lewis in her correspondence, “The draft management agreement you reference in your letter is complete except for consensus on the above-referenced items. Once a consensus has been reached,” she wrote, “we will gladly complete the draft management agreement and forward it to you for review and approval.”
More and more fans
Interest in The Legacy Trail projects has been so intense that county staff has created a dedicated webpage, which provides updates on the North Extension, as well as general information about the facets of the overall project.
Additionally, the Friends of the Legacy Trail, which long has supported the county’s efforts to expand the popular route for bicyclists and pedestrians, continues to provide monthly ridership figures.
Friends member Steve Martin notes on that nonprofit’s website that, based on his calculations, the number of Legacy Trail users through August was 289,132. For all of 2019, Martin put the total at 291,510. Trail users in 2017 numbered 225,586, Martin has reported, while the total dipped a bit in 2018, to 216,153.
Martin explains at this link how he calculates the figures.
The Friends website also offers a long list of benefits of the extensions of the Trail. Among those, the list says the Trail provides “an attractive and safe place to walk, run, skate, cycle, explore local nature viewing opportunities, commute to jobs or run errands.”
Expanding on that, the list notes that the county projects are converting “an unused, overgrown rail corridor to a highly used recreational and commuting trail, reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality.”