Updated 5 yearss ago
I recently took a bike trip on the Pinellas Trail, a 34-mile, former CSX rail corridor that the county has converted to a bicycle and pedestrian track. The paved trail — the longest through an urban area in Florida — extends from downtown St. Petersburg up through the western part of Pinellas County all the way to Tarpon Springs. The county opened the initial five-mile stretch of the trail in 1990 and continues to expand it.
It’s a terrific community asset for Pinellas, Florida’s most densely populated county. From downtown, the route runs past Tropicana Field (home of the Tampa Bay Rays), through parks and both upscale and modest suburban neighborhoods, past a major mall, through downtown Clearwater and on through some nice older sections of Dunedin, where we spent the night. Side spurs north of Dunedin lead out to the pristine beaches at Honeymoon and Caladesi islands. Tree canopies shade many sections of the trail, which remains quiet and peaceful even in places where it’s just a stone’s throw from six-lane, heavily trafficked thoroughfares. Along the route, eight overpasses let riders and walkers avoid the busiest of the 88 places where the trail intersects a surface road. One highlight is a bike/pedestrian-only bridge offering a spectacular, breezy view of Boca Ciega Bay.
Safe and well-maintained with help from a non-profit group, the trail gets plenty of use — about 90,000 people a month, including many schoolchildren who use it to walk to school or to bus stops. The trail has played an economic development role as well, helping to revitalize downtown Dunedin, which has elevated itself in the past 15 years from run-down to quaint.
Florida, it turns out, is somewhat of a national leader in trails, with more than 5,000 miles of state-owned trails. The state dedicates a sliver of Florida Forever preservation to acquiring land for trails. In 2008, a national organization honored the Office of Greenways and Trails, part of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, with its Best Trails State Award for the eight trails the state now manages.
There are also plenty of community-based trail initiatives. The Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit group that helps local governments acquire land for parks, preservation and other public uses, is active nationally in helping communities convert former rail corridors to trails. In Florida, the trust has completed rail-to-trail projects in St. Petersburg, Leesburg, Tallahassee, Gainesville and Sarasota, where the 10.6-mile Legacy Trail recently opened between Venice and Sarasota on a former rail line. The trust is currently working on additional rail-to-trail projects in Orlando, Sarasota and Gilchrist County.
The trail story in Florida isn’t all warm and fuzzy, however. The portion of Florida Forever money dedicated to trail acquisition is just 1.5% of the total. Ken Bryan, state director of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national non-profit group, calls that level of support “dismal.” When the Legislature suspended all funding for the Florida Forever program this year, support for trails went into limbo with it.
In addition, there are a number of issues involving former rail corridors that have been “railbanked.” The railbanking process allows railroads to transfer title to corridors they no longer need to non-profit groups or local governments that convert them to bike and pedestrian trails. Created by the 1983 National Trails Act, railbanking is a win for both the railroad and communities: The community gets a recreational trail; the railroad gets out from under the tax and insurance liabilities of owning the rail corridor while keeping the right to reactivate the line for freight transport at some future time. Groups like the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land strongly support railbanking: Three of the trust’s five completed projects in Florida are railbanked, and all three of its proposed projects are railbank projects.
The state hasn’t been able to take advantage of railbanking, however, because it’s unwilling to follow federal requirements for states to indemnify railroads from liability when the railroad gives up a rail corridor for use as a trail. In addition to costing the state some trail opportunities, the indemnification issue has played a big role in the so-far unsuccessful effort to create the SunRail commuter system in the Orlando area.
Another railbank-related issue involves property owners who sold the railroad easements to create the original rail corridor. The easements in some cases date back more than a century. With encouragement from several national law firms who make a living at this sort of thing, some owners have filed lawsuits seeking compensation from the federal government, claiming that railbanking amounts to a “taking” of their property because the corridor is being used for another purpose aside from its original use as a rail corridor. Lawsuits are pending involving portions of both the Legacy Trail in Sarasota and the Pinellas Trail.
Long term, the most contentious issue involving trails may play out as Florida communities ramp up efforts to create transit systems — trail and transit could end up competing for space, particularly if a railroad seeks to reactivate a corridor that has been converted to a trail. The state got a taste of this issue during the SunRail discussion when there was talk of converting part of the Van Fleet State Trail, a 29-mile former rail corridor through the Green Swamp near Lakeland, back to rail use.
These discussions need not be polarizing. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and many cycling groups support dual use, so-called “rail-with-trail.” The group says there are currently more than 200 rails-with-trails in the U.S., including the Metrobikelink Trail in the East St. Louis area and similar rails-with-trails in Minneapolis and Washington state. The Virginia Bicycling Federation and more than 30 other organizations advocate including bike and pedestrian facilities on all future rail upgrade, enhancement and improvement projects throughout Virginia and the United States.
A big player in this discussion as things evolve will be CSX. The railroad supports railbanking but hasn’t supported rails-with-trails solutions, citing safety concerns. Rails with trails have good safety records around the country, however, and for transit to be successful in Florida, it has to be accessible — trails can help link transit users with transit.
It’s something to keep in mind as both transit and trail efforts proceed in Florida. “It’s not going to be an easy one,” says Bryan. “It will take lots of talking, lots of compromises, and we’ll have to be a little more creative in our thinking.”
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