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How bike paths boost communities

Proposed Legacy Trail extensions hold major promise

By Chris Wille

chris.wille@heraldtribune.com

ill and Sue Newbegin looked for homes to buy here before moving down fromBoston. In showing a Venice house, one real estate agentmentioned that it was only a half hour away from the Legacy Trail. The Newbegins moved down inMarch and bought bicycles.

“We’ve always thought about biking,” said BillNewbegin, a 64-year-old retiredNew England newspaper journalist, adding that he hadn’t ridden one in years.

That’s not all that unusual. Advertisements for rental and for-sale homes promote their proximity to bicycle and pedestrian trails for sound reasons, as theNewbegins demonstrate.

As Sarasota County embarks on two northern extensions of the immensely popular Legacy Trail and asManatee County mounts a fledgling campaign to join the trail trend, the cost-benefit ratio of such amenities bears examination.

Academic studies, government reports and anecdotal evidence all substantiate the economic value of bicycle and pedestrian trails. Studies also disprove concerns of increased crime and lower property values in nearby neighborhoods. Park systems have always validated taxpayer investments for quality of life and community prosperity.

Sarasota County routinely promotes community assets in recruiting new business, says JeffMaultsby, director of the county’s Office of Business and Economic Development.

“When (the Legacy Trail) becomes a part of the discussion, it comes upwhen we talk quality of life, which is very important to company decisionmakers and their respective

See BIKES, D7

Bill and Sue Newbegin ride their bikes across the Legacy Trail bridge over Dona Bay in Nokomis. The Newbegins, who recently moved to Nokomis from the Boston area, said proximity to the Legacy Trail was part of the decision in purchasing their home.

[HERALD-TRIBUNE STAFF PHOTO / MIKE LANG]


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employees,” he said. “When it comes to this, we feel we can compete with any other community and tout Sarasota County amenities” — including the trail, the best beach in the nation on Siesta Key, as recognized by Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman and Trip Advisor, plus 160 parks and 55,000 acres of parkland.

Sarasota County has not conducted research on the economic benefits of the Legacy Trail, said Jason Bartolone, the county’s media relations officer. Neither has the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County. Manatee County has not studied the value of parks, either.

But economic development officials have seen evidence of the value of the Legacy Trail in particular.

“We have been supportive of the project because it is a quality-of-life amenity that is meaningful for attracting and maintaining a top, competitive workforce,” said Mark Huey, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County. “Secondarily, it is an asset that will keep us competitive for active retirees. Communities all over the country are investing in legacy-trail-type assets to win the competition for workforce talent and retirees.”

The American Planning Association states it simply and convincingly: “Parks provide intrinsic environmental, aesthetic and recreation benefits to our cities. They are also a source of positive economic benefits. They enhance property values, increase municipal revenue, bring in homebuyers and workers and attract retirees.

“At the bottom line, parks are a good financial investment for a community. Understanding the economic impacts of parks can help decision makers better evaluate the creation and maintenance of urban parks.”

In August, Sarasota County commissioners, in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, gave preliminary approval to two Legacy Trail projects.

The first is a 2.7-mile section of idle railroad right of way to lengthen the trail to Aston Road from its northern terminus at Culverhouse Nature Park near Palmer Ranch Parkway. The land acquisition alone stands at $7.9 million, which could be taken from a piggy bank the county filled with park impact fees, mobility fees and neighborhood parkland program funds. County documents indicate the land acquisition deal is expected to close on Dec. 20, should due diligence prove favorable.

The second undertaking would add 6.3 miles, from Aston Road to Payne Park in the heart of the city of Sarasota. The $30.1 million right-of-way purchase plus trail construction costs total $65 million. Commissioners agreed to ask voters to approve bonds in a November 2018 referendum.

Is this a worthwhile investment? Will taxpayers and voters balk at the expense?

The Legacy Trail — managed by the Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department and supported by the Friends of The Legacy Trail, an all-volunteer, non-profit organization — has proven benefits for residents and visitors alike. The current 12.5-mile trail, which opened in 2007, stretches from the Venice’s historic train depot to Culverhouse Nature Park and attracts nearly 200,000 people annually, according to county officials.

Visit Sarasota County, the tourism promotion agency, touts the trail’s “smoothly paved path” free of car traffic, its 15 rest areas and seven trailheads with free parking. Being pet-friendly helps, too, as do bike rental and repair stations.

“Its beautiful landscaping, informational signage and old railway hardware make for an excellent excuse to get outdoors, exercise and explore Sarasota County,” the county tourism agency says in a recent website story.

Manatee County remains way behind the curve despite a master plan for trails written in 2002. The goal of that dusty document figures to connect Manatee with Hillsborough and Sarasota counties via a so-called Gateway Greenway trail.

A 2013 study conducted by the Urban Land Institute about Manatee County suggested “a comprehensive plan for open space and greenways that effectively connect and link with roadways, parks, culture, shopping and business districts. ...”

That 2002 plan languishes because of a lack of money, though there are two developments that could turn that around. Funding could come from two new sources — the state’s Shared-Use, Non-Motorized Trails System, created by the Legislature in 2015, and the county’s new half-cent infrastructure sales tax, approved by voters in November 2016.

The value of parks is not a new discovery.

More than 140 years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted, the fabled architect of New York’s Central Park and countless other nature attractions around the country, studied how parks affect property values. From 1856 to 1873, he charted the worth of property bordering Central Park — for the sake of validating the $13 million expense of his creation. Over those 17 years, he discovered property values soared by

See BIKES, D23

The Legacy Trail crosses Colonia Lane in Nokomis, a clearly marked intersection that is one of the few places where trail users interact with motor vehicles.

[HERALD-TRIBUNE STAFF PHOTOS / MIKE LANG]

The Legacy Trail connects with several neighborhoods between Sarasota and Venice, including this bridge that connects the trail to Riverview Drive South in Nokomis.


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$209 million.

Public investment in infrastructure, specifically trails, shows an envious rate of return in job creation, business growth, visitation and other economic development, all in addition to boosting a community’s quality of life, health and wellness and creating a stronger standing across the country.

A 2011 study by the Political Economy Research Institute out of the University of Massachusetts, titled “Pedestrian And Bicycle Infrastructure: A National Study Of Employment Impacts,” evaluated 58 projects.

“Overall, we find that bicycling infrastructure creates the most jobs for a given level of spending,” the study concluded. “For each $1 million, the cycling projects in this study create a total of 11.4 jobs within the state where the project is located. Pedestrian-only projects create an average of about 10 jobs per $1 million and multi-use trails create nearly as many, at 9.6 jobs per $1 million.”

The millennial generation is driving a cultural and societal shift toward communities where automobiles are not preeminent and healthy lifestyle practices such as walking and biking are given greater value.

From 2000 to 2014, the number of Americans traveling to work by bike increased 62 percent, census data show, and more communities are investing in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Colorado and Oregon are leading the way and have four of the top six cities for cycling commuters. Portland, Oregon, built a $135 million bridge across the Willamette River to proved a safe connection between downtown and the east for cyclists, runners and pedestrians as well as buses and the tracks of streetcars. No cars are allowed.

The Legacy Trail’s extension into Sarasota’s center should boost commuter bike travel. On the public safety issue, studies find trails are fairly harmless. A 2006 study by two professors from the University of Delaware cited surveys in 16 cities that indicated property owners and law enforcement agencies only reported such minor crimes as illegal motorized vehicles, litter and unleashed pets occurred on trails. “The overwhelming opinion was that the trail had a positive effect on the quality of life of the neighborhood,” the authors concluded.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy conducted a survey of 372 trails in 38 states. The study pointed out that trail opponents refer to stories about trails “with only a handful of newspaper headlines to back up their assertion rather than empirical research.”

Statistics indicate major crimes on trails rank below national rates, the survey showed. Indeed, “living near the trails was better than living near the unused railroad lines before trails were constructed.”

Cyclists cross the Legacy Trail bridge over Roberts Bay in Nokomis.

[HERALD-TRIBUNE STAFF PHOTO / MIKE LANG]

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