Push trail completion forward

By Steve Estes

Recently the state announced that the most-visited segment of the statewide Overseas Heritage Trail is the segment that spans Monroe County, and that despite the fact that the bicycle/pedestrian path along the length of the Keys isn’t even finished yet.

And that makes efforts to get the trail completed well worth the work.

Florida has backed off on its commitment to the trail project in recent years. A leg between Lower Sugarloaf and Summerland Key has been put on hold for at least two years as the state Department of Environmental Protection has withdrawn funding. Once part of the Greenways and Trails division, the Overseas Heritage Trail is now part of the state parks division of DEP and the leadership in that division has found higher priorities for funding than well-traveled and highly visited bike trails around the state.

Planning and design funding had been coming through DEP on a regular basis with construction money funneled into the county through the state Department of Transportation. As DEP money for pre-construction dried up, the DOT money is left on the table.

Such is the case with nearly $5 million in funds that would have turned several of the older now-unused historic bridges into trail segments, such as Pine Channel, Kemp Channel and Spanish Harbor. The construction money has been allocated by DOT, but the original designs, due to work since by DOT, have been rendered unusable and DEP isn’t willing to pony up more money to update the designs of those segments.

Also sitting in limbo is a large trail segment from Big Pine Key to the south end of 7-Mile Bridge, critical link in allowing bikers to traverse the the length of the Keys by two-wheeled conveyance.

And even with evidence that the trail is popular and well used by visitors, the lifeblood of our economy, county officials haven’t exactly been knocking down doors to lobby for continued progress on the unfinished trail segments.

DOT has said several times that if Monroe County is willing to take the lead and use local money for updated design work, it will leave trail money already in the funding plan alone and pay those costs.

The answer has been a relatively deafening silence from county leadership.

The report says the trails are popular. The county commission acts as if they’re just so much pavement.

That mind set needs to change.

Perhaps it’s time the county commission puts a higher priority on eco-friendly tourist draws, of which the Overseas Heritage Trail is one.

It might take a few tens of thousands to get the trail projects back on a solid footing going forward, but with grant money and a little cajoling of the state DEP and DOT, it would probably be a wash for county coffers.

And it would be just a good thing to do for the Keys.

The BOCC has seven architectural and/or engineering firms on retainer. Surely one of them has the expertise to dust off the old designs and update them for today’s changed conditions, releasing millions in construction money that just might go to a local contractor and pour some money into the local economy with fee income and good-paying jobs.

We already know that the completion of the trail will draw additional tourists, and those same tourists will pump money into the local economy and the local tax base by spending at local establishments and putting sales taxes in the till and probably adding some bed tax dollars because bicyclists don’t often tow RVs behind their bicycles.

We talk a lot about jump starting the economy,but then we shy from spending money to make money, and we shy from spending money to break even, which is still a win for us because of the jobs created and the good will churned out by completion of a world-renowned project.

A simply discussion with DOT and DEP about what it takes to get these projects back in a forward motion should be high on the commission’s list of things to do for county staff.

We are looking at a project that covers all our bases. We make tax dollars in two ways. We entice environmentally friendly tourists. We create some good jobs even if just in a short term.

But the best result of all is that a completed trail would add a layer of safety to our only highway by getting those who will ride the Keys regardless of the presence of a completed trail.

It’s the right thing to do.

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