FDOT secretary recommends to commissioner that county staff proceed from where it left off last year
On Feb. 1, the Sarasota County Commission received an update from staff saying the Florida Department of Transportation was continuing to negotiate with CSX over the purchase of approximately 100 miles of railroad corridor — including the piece needed for the north extension of The Legacy Trail.
Eight days later — during the board’s Feb. 9 regular meeting in Venice — Commissioner Charles Hines reported those negotiations have stalled.
That was what he learned during a recent discussion with Jim Boxold, Florida’s secretary of transportation, Hines told his colleagues. “[Boxold’s] recommendation to us was to proceed independently at this point.”
Hines said Boxold understands that the north extension of The Legacy Trail is a priority for the County Commission.
No other board member offered a comment.
On April 1, 2015, the commissioners voted unanimously to adopt The Legacy Trail Feasibility Study, which encompassed various design options for the 7.5-mile north extension with an estimated construction cost of $20.3 million. The vote included direction to County Administrator Tom Harmer to obtain real estate appraisals of the railroad property needed for the project. In light of Boxold’s new information, county spokesman Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader on Feb. 11, county staff members have been discussing strategies for their next steps, including the appraisals.
The extension would run from the Trail’s current terminus just north of Culverhouse Park to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota.
Prior to the April 1, 2015 vote, Commissioners Paul Caragiulo and Al Maio — both of whom were elected to the board just months earlier — talked of how much they had heard about The Legacy Trail on the campaign trail. Many people told him, Caragiulo pointed out, “This is probably the best thing the county has ever done.”
“Not once was there ever a murmur other than that this was the greatest thing Sarasota County had ever done,” Maio concurred, noting that he had attended 125 events during his campaign, a figure his wife had tallied.
“I want to figure out a way to get this thing done,” Caragiulo said of completing the north extension.
The Feb. 1 update to the board notes that in July 2015, county staff first was notified of the interest of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) in obtaining more than 100 miles of rail corridor in the state. On Jan. 5 of this year, staff again contacted FDOT and learned that the discussions with CSX were continuing. “FDOT is in the process of reviewing additional information recently requested and provided by CSX as part of the negotiation and due diligence process,” the Feb. 1 memo says. “FDOT was unable to provide a tentative timeline for the completion of the review,” the memo adds, “but [it] agreed to stay in contact with county staff and provide updates as they become available.”
The memo also pointed out, “FDOT staff indicated that a future partnership between [Sarasota County] and FDOT would follow normal, established working procedures/agreements that currently exist between the state and the county.”
County staff expected that if the state department’s negotiations with CSX proved successful, FDOT would request funding during the 2017 legislative session to make its purchase possible.
A positive response
In an Oct. 7, 2015 post on its website, the Friends of The Legacy Trail reminded its members and supporters about the April 1, 2015 County Commission vote.
The Friends’ message continued, “Here is the most recent official statement given to us by the County explaining where things stand right now [the emphasis is included in the post]:
“FDOT has indicated to CSX that they are interested in purchasing approximately 100 miles of rail corridor throughout the state, which includes the 7.5 mile extension piece of The Legacy Trail. Due to FDOT’s interest in multiple rail corridors, CSX has indicated that they are willing to allow FDOT to complete their due diligence and potentially make an offer prior to engaging in the county’s request to proceed with a cost sharing land appraisal between the Trust for Public Land, CSX and Sarasota County.”
The website message concluded, “Although there are many uncertainties, we at [Friends of The Legacy Trail] believe that the involvement of FDOT in the process is a positive factor in our effort to extend the trail. Stay tuned!”
Next steps suggested in April 2015
Prior to the April 1, 2015 County Commission meeting, a staff memo to the board provided a brief history of The Legacy Trail, noting it was constructed between the Venice Train Depot and Palmer Ranch Parkway as part of the county’s first rails-to-trails corridor. “Since that time,” the memo continued, “the trail has been a vital community asset that attracts over 100,000 users every year.”
The memo added that in 2013, the Friends of The Legacy Trail petitioned the board to extend the trail to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota. In early 2014, the county hired Cardno Inc. to develop a feasibility study for that project.
The resulting study outlined various technical recommendations, such as a preferred trail alignment, necessary infrastructure improvements and pavement widths, the memo pointed out. It also recommended an environmental site assessment (ESA) as the next step, as that would indicate any potential problems that could affect the value of the property.
An appraisal was necessary first, the memo said, because “CSX has indicated it will not allow [an ESA] to be performed on the corridor prior to the parties entering into a purchase contract.”
Bruce Dillon of Venice long has been one of the mostly highly visible supporters of The Legacy Trail in Sarasota County. He was the lone speaker to address the board before it heard the April 1, 2015 presentation on the feasibility study.
In a telephone interview with the News Leader on Feb. 2 — exactly a week before Commissioner Hines presented his update — Dillon said he doubted that the north extension would be completed any faster as a result of FDOT’s negotiations with CSX than it would be if the county continued to pursue a sales transaction.
He also pointed out that if FDOT were successful, the extension most likely would end up as a rails-and-trails model instead of a rails-to-trails facility, while the Friends organization preferred.
(The rails-to-trails model was county staff’s recommendation in April 2015. Just as the phrase implies, a rails-and trails design would keep the railroad tracks in place, with the trail adjacent to them. The rails-to-trails model encompasses removal of the tracks.)
Dillon added of the north extension, “I don’t think it’s going to happen fast,” regardless of which government entity handles it. Nonetheless, he said, “It’s going to happen. … The County Commission is pretty committed to it.”