Red tide research and fiber optic cable along Legacy Trail extension among projects for which Sarasota County seeking federal funding

County Commission approves lobbying priorities for 109th Congress

Congressman-elect Greg Steube. Photo from the Ballotpedia website

Water quality issues, the planned improvements to River Road and the potential of installing fiber optic cable along the North Extension of The Legacy Trail will be among issues on which Sarasota County staff and its lobbyist will focus with members of the 109th Congress.

Those topics were on a list the County Commission approved unanimously on Dec. 11.

Rob Lewis, director of governmental relations with the county, told the commissioners that, given the Nov. 6 election of former Florida House member and state Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota as a Member of Congress, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s status as a high-ranking member of the U.S. Senate, “I think we’re positioned as well as we’ve ever been to have a coordinated effort” to achieve success with county priorities.

Amanda L. Wood, senior government relations consultant with the Becker law firm in Washington, D.C. — the county’s federal lobbyist — pointed, for example, to Steube’s expertise on the River Road projects, as Steube worked for years on those in the Florida Legislature.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler told Wood that he had spoken with Steube about the county’s responsibility to pay for the improvements on River Road from Englewood to U.S. 41. “I think that he’s willing to champion that for us.”

“Absolutely,” Wood responded. “It will be of great benefit,” she added, for Steube to advocate for federal support for that project.

Chair Nancy Detert also noted that she had known Rubio since they both were first elected to the Florida Legislature in 2006. He will be the senior senator from the third largest state in the nation, she added.

“We’re working very closely with [his] office,” Wood replied.

Historically, she explained, Rubio had declined to advocate for specific projects, indicating that he did not want to seem to favor one Florida jurisdiction over another. However, Wood continued, his stance has changed.
“I think he’s in a very good situation,” Detert said, since power in the U.S. Senate is “pretty much based on seniority.”

Detert also indicated that she expected Rubio to be a strong advocate for funding for water quality improvements, because of the negative national publicity once again this year about the green-blue algae that colored waterways and drove away tourists as a result of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ release of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie River estuaries.

Detert referred to the county’s problems with red tide, which is caused by a saltwater algae.

Mote Marine Laboratory staff bring a deceased dolphin into its facilities on City Island in August, so a necropsy can be performed to determine if red tide exposure caused the death. Photo by Connor Goulding of Mote Marine

A staff document provided to the board in advance of the Dec. 11 discussion says, “The County is deeply concerned about the effects of algal blooms that occur when colonies of algae grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds. Harmful algal blooms also include blooms of non-toxic species that have harmful effects on marine ecosystems. For example, when masses of algae die and decompose, the decaying process can deplete oxygen in the water, causing the water to become so low in oxygen that animals either leave the area or die. These blooms have a devastating effect on wildlife, ecosystem, economy, and quality of life.”

“Hopefully, there will be some [federal] money for clean water and air,” Detert told Wood and Lewis.

Additionally, Wood said she and Lewis would push for money from “some new dedicated funding streams” for red tide research, which could go to Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota County, for example.

A related county request is for support through U.S. “EPA Clean Water Discretionary Funding and low-cost financing through the newly-authorized Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program,” to continue replacing individual septic systems in the Phillippi Creek basin with central sewer lines, according to the document provided to the commission prior to the Dec. 11 meeting.

The document noted that “about 15,400 septic tanks will be replaced” over the life of the county’s Phillippi Creek Septic to Sewer Project, with the total project cost estimated at $214 million.

The Legacy Trail and New Pass

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

Commissioner Michael Moran raised the topic of fiber optic cable along The Legacy Trail. “What do you need or want from our staff?” he asked Wood, to help her advocate for funding for that from Congress.

Moran added that he felt “very specific ideas,” instead of a conceptual plan, would be more useful as Wood and Lewis work on that issue.

Wood responded that she and Lewis believe The Legacy Trail project “is ripe for federal funding.” They will discuss the plans with representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), she added, pointing out that the fiber optic infrastructure would “enhance this project.”

Another segment of the document outlining county priorities for the 109th Congress provides these details. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“We’d love to have you all up in Washington,” she told the commissioners, to stress to USDOT staff the importance of being able to lay the cable while improvements are made on former railroad right of way to extend The Legacy Trail from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to Fruitville Road, to serve bicyclists and pedestrians.

Other Legacy Trail connections will link Venice and North Port.

In 2017, the Trail, which runs just from Venice to the Palmer Ranch, had more 225,000 users, members of the Friends of The Legacy Trail have reported. Through October of this year, the Friends’ website notes, the count was up to 181,244.

“I would certainly support what Commissioner Moran had to say,” Detert told Wood. That “double use” of the former CSX Transportation railroad right of way, Detert added, should help Wood “sell the project.”

Amanda L. Wood. Photo from the Becker website

Yet another initiative Wood discussed was work to expedite permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for county projects.

For example, she said, she and Lewis would continue to advocate for funding the county has sought for New Pass. “It has been a bit of a struggle,” she added, because the waterway has not been a USACE priority.

The document provided to the commission in advance of the Dec. 11 discussion explained, “New Pass is a federally authorized dredging project that has reached its funding cap. Following the dredging event that was completed in spring of 2003, the City of Sarasota was informed by the [USACE] that the total funding ceiling of $4 million had been reached for this project. The authorization is still valid, but no further dredging can occur (with federal funding) unless and until the cap is increased by legislative action.”

As a result, the document noted, the county is supporting federal action, “such as amending congressional rules to lift the earmark moratorium on requests for federal funding for [USACE] projects and authorizations through the Water Resources Development Act, to allow additional federal funds for the maintenance of New Pass, originally authorized in 1964.”

During the Dec. 11 discussion, Commissioner Alan Maio told Lewis, the governmental affairs director, that he wanted to ask that whoever advocates on the county’s behalf in discussions with USACE representatives “ask … them why they think they’re too good to do an EIS [Environmental Impact Study] on a big dredging project when the rest of the world and the private sector gets forced to do one.”

Maio was referring to a commission request in August 2016, when he was the chair, for the USACE to undertake an EIS on the proposed dredging of about 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Sarasota Pass to renourish a stretch of about 1.6 miles of severely eroded South Lido Key shoreline. That project, proposed by the City of Sarasota jointly with the USACE, won the necessary state permit earlier this year. Siesta Key-based organizations have called for an EIS, pointing to the assertions of experts — who even testified in a Florida Division of Administrative Law Hearings proceeding last year — that the USACE did not undertake adequate modeling to prove that the dredging of Big Pass will not lead to extensive damage to Siesta Key.

The USACE responded in late November 2016 to the county’s request for the EIS, saying the federal agency felt its studies were sufficient and that an EIS was not warranted.

Maio told Lewis on Dec. 11 that his remark “was just my editorial comment.”

“I think that was rhetorical,” Chair Detert added.