Capital City to the Sea, SUN Trail quick hits

by Rob Diaz de Villegas

Cycling enthusiasts, you may want to catch WFSU’s Local Routes on October 29 (7:30 pm ET on WFSU-TV). We follow the inaugural Apalachicola River Riders through the Apalachicola National Forest, Tate’s Hell State Forest, and across the bridge and into Apalachicola to meet up with the 2015 RiverTrek paddlers. WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas spent two days paddling this year’s ‘Trek, sharing a tandem kayak with his four-year-old son Max.  As always, if you miss the show, the video will be here on the Ecology Blog.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

In Tallahassee, construction continues on a bridge across Monroe Street that will connect the newly finished section of the FAMU Way Extension to Capital Cascades Park.  Soon, the FAMU Way Extension will connect to the St. Marks Trail.  These are small links in what will eventually become a completed Capital City to the Sea Trail (CC2ST).  That regional loop between Leon and Wakulla Counties will in turn become part of the state’s SUN (Shared Use Non-motorized) Trail system.  Construction is the visible part of a process that could take decades to complete.  At a meeting of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council two weeks ago, there were updates on the CC2ST and an attempt to clarify the process through which the SUN Trail would be completed.

The trails we’re talking about are paved, multi-use trails between 8-12 feet in width.  As much as possible, the trails, while often paralleling the road, are separated from them.  This makes for a safer, more enjoyable walking/ cycling experience, but it also creates (possibly expensive) challenges in designing and constructing trails.  As often as possible, Florida DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails tries to find public lands for trail segments.  This saves the state acquisition money and utilizes the natural beauty of state parks, National Forests, and other managed lands.

The trails promise recreational and economic benefits where they are built, but they take time to develop and build.

“[People] just assume trails happen,” lamented council member Becky Alfonso (Oldsmar, FL, appointed as Greenway User).  Her comment reflected the frustration often felt by the public as they wait years for exciting looking trails to be built and used.  It’s an elaborate process.  The length of time between conception and construction means that situations can change, causing trail builders to have to adapt and revise their plans.  This has already happened on the CC2ST.  It will likely happen many times before the SUN Trail starts connecting Florida cities and parks.

Capital City to the Sea Trail update

John Sewell works for Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc., the firm designing the CC2ST. Jack Kostrzewa is the Planning Manager for Capital Region Transportation Planning Agency, the metropolitan planning organization for Gadsden, Jefferson, Leon and Wakulla counties.  Mr. Sewell, with input from Mr. Kostrzewa, made a presentation to the Council on the progress of the trail system.  In late 2013, they led us on a cycling EcoAdventure on many of the existing and planned trail segments.

  • Sewell did report one major snag.  The Trout Pond Trail may not be extended in to Tallahassee, where it was mapped to join Capital Circle at Munson Slough.  The existing 2-mile trail starts at Trout Pond, a fishing and camping spot in the Apalachicola National Forest (you can see it in the linked video).  The US Forest Service in Florida has reversed its position on having a trail run through the ANF.  This was the second highest priority segment based on public input and would complete the loop back to Tallahassee.  The full trail would run, roughly, from Tallahassee to St. Marks, then to Ochlockonee Bay, up along the Ochlockonee River and back to Tallahassee through the forest.  Discussions continue with the USFS. If it can’t be worked out, planners will seek an alternate route
  • The top priority trail runs along highway 98 from the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to Ochlockonee Bay.  This segment is currently being designed.   Construction is likely to begin in late 2016, and should be completed within a year of that.  The major challenge in designing it is the salt marshes lining 98 outside of Panacea.  The trail there will utilize raised boardwalks on land-side marshes.
  • Coastal travelers may notice the Oaks Restaurant and Shopping Center, a long closed, retro style structure on the Wakulla side of Ochlockonee Bay.  That property has been purchased by the Department of Transportation, and will be bulldozed and replaced with a trailhead that could serve as a Wakulla welcome center.
  • Sewell emphasized the need for transparency and public input when designing a regional trail system.  His advice for groups assigning and building trails? “Don’t skimp on your public involvement process.”  A group of dog hunters in Wakulla County wasn’t on board with a segment proposed to run through the Apalachicola National Forest.  After a round of meetings with the group, they gave the project their blessing.  Overall, Sewell reports overwhelming public support for the project.
  • CC2ST will be seeking SUN Trail Dollars.  Which brings us to-

Defining the SUN Trail Process

In regards to the SUN Trail, I can see where one might feel the kind of frustration evoked earlier by Becky Alfonso.  The system will get $25,000,000 a year to create a statewide system that would one day allow a cyclist to travel from Pensacola to Key West on paved trails.  But Florida DOT and the Florida Greenways and Trails Council have to determine the criteria by which it decides where money is spent.  There was plenty of discussion on this at this last meeting, and then, at the next meeting, scheduled for December 4-5, there will be more.  It could take another year before the process is defined.  Here are some of the considerations:

  • The most pressing matter is setting eligibility criteria.  Trail segments of national, statewide, or regional importance would be ranked higher.  But what of rural counties?  Jim Wood, from FDOT’s Office of Policy Planning, addressed this in his presentation.  While he doesn’t believe that every county should split the $25 million evenly every year; he does think that a percentage could go for larger regional projects with a certain amount set aside to help smaller communities get their trails built.  This assumes that these trails are on the FDEP Office of Greenways and Trails priority map (linked to poster sized PDF).
  • Construction readiness will likely be a factor.  The Coast to Coast Connector in Central Florida is well under way and will be the state’s largest multi-use trail system when it’s done.  This is likely to be a top priority.
  • Once a trail is built, who will maintain it?  Consider the investment being made into what could be a world-class trail system.  Millions of dollars will be spent on design and construction, but then what?  The Department of Transportation will build, but not manage, trails.   While larger municipalities in Florida might easily afford management of the trails, what about smaller, rural areas?  Should some SUN dollars be set aside to help communities afford the cost of maintenance?
  • One option to affordably maintain trails might be to use volunteers.  It was pointed out that costly equipment (lawn mowers, edge trimmers, chainsaws, etc.) would be needed to properly maintain an attractive and functional trail.  A model to consider is the US Forest Service’s management of the Florida National Scenic Trail.  USFS buys the equipment needed to clear trails and build boardwalks, but uses the Florida Trail Association, AmeriCorps, and other volunteers for labor.
  • Dale Allen, Chairman of the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation, offered that grouping more trails into regional connectors would pair smaller rural counties with larger metropolitan ones.  In this way, management duties could be split between counties with varying resources.  At the previous FGTC meeting in July, Mr. Allen presented a plan that grouped most of the individual trails on the priority map into over a dozen named regional connectors.  So, instead of a couple hundred trail segments, projects would be marketed and funded as parts of a larger whole (like the Capital City to the Sea or Coast to Coast connectors).  The plan has not been formally proposed or voted upon by the Council.
  • Jerrie Lindsey, who holds the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission seat on the Council, asked what consideration would be given to habitat along these trails.  While it hadn’t been considered to this point, Jim Wood seemed interested in exploring the matter further.  After all, what draws many of us to the outdoors is the flora and fauna that defines natural Florida.

I’ll continue to follow the progress of the SUN Trail as projects start being funded, designed, and built.  As my primary focus at WFSU is the north Florida area, I’ll include any opportunity for public input on the system for this area.

WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas served as a member of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council from 2013 until September of 2015. Rob resigned after the Florida Legislature allocated $25,000,000 annually for the completion of the SUN Trail, a statewide system of paved multi-use trails.  The Florida Department of Transportation will build the trail based on proposals vetted by Florida DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails and approved by the Council.  Rob will continue to cover the trail system for WFSU, but not participate in the process.

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