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Connecting trails could transform local communities

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By Sean Arnold

When Dale Allen retired in 2010 and took to riding the state’s local trails, he quickly grew frustrated.

For more than 30 years, Florida’s local and state authorities have been acquiring abandoned railroad corridors and converting them into recreational trails, in line with the national rails-to-trails trend.

The process has led to a hodge-podge of disconnected pieces, undermining the potential of the trails to serve as long-distance carriers for bicyclists, and economic stimuli for the communities they run through.

Allen, the executive director of Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation, wants to change that, and some recent developments are helping stir momentum toward that goal, which would include a regional trail connecting Dunnellon to Tallahassee.

“It’s been a kind of Wild West trying to get these things done,” Allen says. “As a result, we had about 65 trails scattered across Florida.

“All over Florida, these trails were being developed for recreational purposes. We came along and said if we start connecting these trails together, you might get someplace. That was a huge breakthrough, because we moved from recreation, where there’s very little money, to transportation, which is billions of dollars.”

Allen’s all-volunteer organization is leading an effort to form a series of what they call regional connectors, which would link together local trails around the state by filling in gaps and renovating abandoned corridor paths already in place.

After finding early success in pursuing a Coast-to-Coast Regional Connector, which draws a line from the Atlantic Ocean to St. Petersburg, it’s exploring a Nature Coast Regional Connector, consisting of a 140-mile unbroken route from Dunnellon to Tallahassee, which would pass through the heart of Levy and Dixie County, connecting the current Nature Coast State Trail to neighboring trails to the south and north.

It would become the main – perhaps only – connecting trail between the northwest part of the state and the south.

“I think this would become one of the preeminent corridors in the state of Florida,” Allen says, noting the areas springs and unique rural landscapes. “But it can’t do that until we connect it, link the pieces up from top to bottom.”

The creation of the Florida Shared-Use Non-motorized (SUN) Trail Network by the state legislature in 2015 has meant tens of millions of dollars in funding now marked for connecting trails around the state. It’s a program, under the Florida Department of Transportation, aimed at “developing a statewide system of paved non-motorized trails as a component of the Florida Greenways and Trails System (FGTS), which is planned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

But Allen says this area hasn’t been able to claim any of that funding due to its lack of organization and representation. It’s something his group, with the help of the affected counties, is trying to change. They recently met with county administrators on the issue in May.

“The plan is to get organized as a coastal alliance around this single trail that will connect Dunnellon all the way to Tallahassee,” Allen says. “We can start competing for the money to start building this.”

Ultimately, with the local communities in the area lacking the resources, he believes the Department of Environmental Protection is in the best position to take lead responsibility on the project, and then manage and advertise for the trail once in place, at least initially.

“If we create a 140-mile corridor – this is not a very populated area of Florida – we start putting thousands of people out there, we better be organized to deal with it and take care of them. Are there enough bathrooms? Good signage? Everybody’s got to be really engaged in this thing.”

He says the top priority is launching a feasibility study through the FDOT that could ballpark the costs required to establish the regional connector. Allen says the stretch from Dunnellon to Chiefland, which passes through the Goethe Forest and hugs US 19/98, is the most optimally positioned for a trail connector, linking up the Withlacoochee State Trail with the Nature Coast State Trail. The sole owner of the stretch – Duke Energy – has offered an easement along the proposed path that follows the old rail corridor.

“The bridges are all falling apart,” Allen says. “They’re now almost 100 years old in some places.

“My guess is the Dunnellon-to-Chiefland (connector) could come in the next five years.”

The areas north of Cross City might prove more difficult as the corridors are less uninhibited and the ownership of the properties are more complicated. In total, about 25 percent of the proposed regional connector already has a trail in place.

Nature Coast State Trail manager Mark Abrizenski projects a massive economic impact from the establishment of a long-distance trail through the area, and notes that it would also help reverse Florida’s standing as the most dangerous state in the country for bikers and pedestrians.

Abrizenski and Allen can envision the trail driving up use of the local parks and springs, but without the detrimental environmental costs of more automobile traffic. They also see smaller side trails being connected to the regional trail, and potentially new trails emerging in the wake its construction, especially those that would connect bikers to the coasts and other water spots.

“Economically, this is huge, all these little trail towns along the way,” Abrizenski says, citing places like Otter Creek. “Over 300,000 people use the Nature Coast State Trail, and double that use the Withlacoochee Trail.”