Optimism Reigns on the Extension as County Looks for Internal Funds

by Roger Normand

Amid a sea of unmistakable yellow “Extend the Legacy Trail” shirts filling the audience, endorsements from many public speakers, and having received hundreds of supportive, personalized emails, the County Commissioners began to consider how to buy the land to extend the Legacy Trail into Payne Park at a 15 February 2017 Board of County Commissioners meeting. The outcome left extension advocates cheering as the Commissioners unanimously directed the County staff to go find County funding options to more quickly acquire the corridor rather than await a county wide referendum in the regular November 2018 election, as recommended by staff.

A key milestone was a just-signed sale contract for the 7.5 mile corridor from owner CSX Corporation and its lessee Seminole Gulf Railway to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), who partnered with the County to negotiate the sale terms. The parties have been negotiating for nearly one year. Once ratified, TPL would in turn transfer the rail corridor to the County at the same cost. The $38 million contract price is split into two phases. Phase one requires $20 million by the end of this year for the portion of the corridor between the current end of the trail at Culverhouse Nature Park to Bahia Vista. Phase two calls for $18 million no later than 2019 for the remaining length to Payne Park. Though the cost is more than most expected, several commissioners noted it is 14 percent below the appraised value. There was no visible opposition to the price tag.

But where to find $20 million in the County’s $1 billion budget by this December? Possible sources mentioned at the hearing included bonding, mobility fees, tourism tax, and a millage (real estate) tax rate increase. In exhorting the staff, Commissioners noted “nothing is off the table,” “staff, don’t eliminate options,”the trail it is an investment, not an expense.”

Conveniently, the first of a series of budget workshops was held on February 17, 2017. The workshop aims to review priorities for fiscal year 2018, which begins on 1 October 2017. The Commissioners aggressively pursued funding opportunities. “We are scrapping for money here,” said Commissioner Hines in a theme that applies to all budget review processes, not just to fund the extension. Potential opportunities to free funds included revising Surtax III spending plans (the 1 percent discretionary sales tax that the state allows charter counties to apply on top of the 6 percent state levy), scaling back or deferring some capital improvement projects, accelerating the sale of surplus county lands, and levying up to a 10 percent public service tax that the state allows counties to apply to electric, water and natural/propane gas bills. It was noted that eight counties charge the full 10 percent on all utilities, eight change some portion, and four, including Sarasota, change nothing. It was further noted that Sarasota County has some of the lowest millage rate in the state, and has not raised the tax rate in over a decade. Moody’s has just raised the County’s bond rating, which would lower the County’s interest payments if it opts to raise funds via a bond.

While the Friends of the Legacy Trail remain an unabashed supporter for the extension, we don’t believe the County should have to pay for the entire expected $60 million land acquisition and construction cost. We firmly believe and are pursuing other viable funding opportunities from private and other governmental sources. But these other potential sources first require the County to commit funds towards the purchase of the corridor.

Thanks to all our Friends who supported the extension effort at this critical time. We commend the County Commissioners actions….and urge our extension supporters to keep the momentum going.

ACCIDENT ON THE TRAIL

HELMET SAVES WOMAN’S LIFE

by Darryl Lang

Around 10am on Monday, February 20, I went for a walk on the Legacy Trail. As I walked just north of Laurel Road, I noticed two women and a man sitting on the Trail with their bikes off to the side. I walked up to them and asked what was wrong and if I could help. One woman was sitting there with a bloody knee and looking dazed. They told me that the two women (sisters) had collided into each other while riding. Both women fell, but one hit her head on the pavement. She was disoriented and nauseous — the signs of a head injury.

We called 911 and waited for the EMTs to show up. The sister who wasn’t hurt, except for a sore arm, showed me the helmet her sister was wearing (see below). She hit the pavement so hard, the impact cracked her helmet!  What if she had not been wearing a helmet?  What if it was her skull that cracked?

The woman was diagnosed with a concussion, but is going to be okay.

They were casual riders, not going fast, just out for a short ride on the Trail, enjoying their vacation and never thinking one of them would end up going to the hospital in an ambulance.

People think they don’t need helmets on the Trail. They are just out for a slow, casual ride on a safe Trail and nothing will happen. You just never know.

This woman may not have survived her fall or may have been very seriously injured if she hadn’t been wearing a helmet.

So……PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE:  WEAR A HELMET ON THE TRAIL.

Financing Bicycle Infrastructure: The Case of the Legacy Trail Extension

From the Blog of Doug Barnes

With a feeling of common purpose, I’m sitting amongst a sea of yellow in the first floor meeting room in Sarasota County Administration building in Florida. The call by the Friends of the Legacy Trail and the local bicycle organizations to attend the February 15, 2017 meeting is an overwhelming success. Not only are there about 100 supporters of the extension of the Legacy Trail in the room, but 300 sent emails and many others made phone calls. The call to action was issued because of the possibility of a 2 year delay in the financing of the Legacy Trail Extension to Sarasota.
Read more …

End of Existing Legacy Trail, Sarasota, Florida: Beginning of Extension
Photo by Doug Barnes

County Commissioners Vote to Direct Staff to Pursue All Possible Funding Options For the Trail Extension

At their 2/15/17 meeting, the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) showed strong support for trying to find County funds to buy the right-of-way for The Legacy Trail Extension now, rather than wait for a voter referendum in two years.  They directed county staff to investigate all possible funding options and scenarios to get this done sooner rather than later.  County staff will report back to the Commissioners at their budget meeting this Friday 2/17/17.

In other good news, we learned that the Trust for Public Land has now signed a contract to buy the right-of-way land from CSX.  The current plan is for the land to be paid for in two phases.  The first half of the trail will cost $20M and the second half will cost $18M.  Completion of the sale is contingent upon Sarasota County finding funds to pay for the first half of the corridor by the end of 2017.

Thanks to everyone who wrote emails, made phone calls, and came to the BCC meeting to support The Legacy Trail Extension.  The Commissioners received over 300 personal emails and many phone calls supporting the Extension.  More than 100 supporters attended the meeting.  Your support helped to demonstrate the strong community support for the Commissioners to act now.

Potential Economic Benefits of the Trail Extension to Sarasota County

by Andrea Seager

Friends of The Legacy Trail has examined numerous economic impact studies of multi-use recreational trails around the country.  Below are three studies we feel have adequately examined:

  • Day use and tourism impacts,
  • Long term impacts to adjacent property values, and
  • Job creation and taxes returned to cities off of these impacts.

The High Line Trail in New York City and Katy Trail in Dallas are completed, short urban trails.  The Underline in Miami is a study of the projected impacts of a 10 mile urban trail, similar to the Legacy Trail Extension.

High Line, New York City

  • 5 miles, 22 city blocks, derelict elevated freight line
  • Cost $260 million to build
  • Initial projections:
    • Will increase city tax revenues by $250 million over 20 years
    • Will attract 400,000 tourists per year
  • Actual results:
    • Increased city tax revenues $900 million per year
    • Attracts 4 million tourists per year
    • Has attracted $2 billion in new economic activity
    • Real estate values double one block away; 75% higher than rest of downtown Manhattan

Dallas Park System

  • Trails generated highest ROI of any park typology over 50:1 in last 18 years.
  • $23 million in capital investment to build the 3.5 mile Katy Trail has resulted in $907 million in park-oriented development

Miami’s Underline (projected impacts)

  • 10 mile corridor under an existing commuter rail line
  • $110 million -$120 million cost to build
  • Over $170 million total economic output from construction
  • $48 million in economic output from operations annually
  • $6-10 million in annual incremental tax revenues
  • 1000 construction related and 400 permanent jobs

Sources:

http://greenplayllc.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Highline.pdf

https://web.mail.comcast.net/service/home/~/?auth=co&loc=en_US&id=876824&part=2   (see pages v and vii)

https://www.theunderline.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Miami_Underline_Economic_Impact_Study_FINAL.pdf  (see pages 3 and 4)

County May Delay Legacy Trail Extension by Two Years

by Roger Normand

Anyone watching the recent Super Bowl knows bad things can happen when you lose momentum.  Once lost, it can be very hard to regain it.  Is Sarasota County about to lose the substantial momentum gained to extend the extend the Legacy Trail into the heart of the city of Sarasota by waiting nearly two more years for a voter referendum in 2018 for buying the corridor, as the County staff proposes?

That, and how to find the funds to keep the momentum going, are the two key questions the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) must answer when they meet on February 15, 2017.  Here is the link to the agenda.

What can you do to support SAY YES, NOW for the trail extension?

We urge Trail supporters to wear their Legacy Trail shirts and attend the BCC public hearing at 9 am on February 15, 2017 at 1660 Ringling Blvd, Sarasota Fl to show their support to SAY YES, NOW to acquire the trail corridor.  If you are unable to attend, we urge you to contact the County Commissioners by email or phone, providing your name, address, and a short message why you support SAY YES, NOW to the trail extension.

Email: commissioners@scgov.net
Phone: 941-861-5344 weekdays from 9am to 5 pm

Two years to develop a funding strategy and identify funding sources

It’s been nearly two years since the County Commissioners voted unanimously on April 1st, 2015 to begin negotiations with owner CSX Corporation, including a nine month interlude by FDOT.  The County staff has been working closely with their negotiating partner the Trust for Public Land (TPL) throughout the negotiations with CSX.  Once the appraisal was completed in October 2016 and it became clear the cost would exceed previous estimates, TPL negotiated terms for a two phased purchase, with $20 million for phase 1 to acquire about half the corridor to Bahia Vista by the end of this year, and funds for phase 2 to reach Payne Park by the end of 2019.

What momentum would be lost?

 Extension supporters have been anxious to hear that the parties had completed negotiations, culminating with the recent CSX Notice of Intent to sell the corridor.  The failure of the County to follow through on the negotiated terms does not support the considerable good faith effort by TPL to negotiate favorable terms for the sale.

The Friends of the Legacy Trail have worked diligently to marshall public support for the extension.  We have over 1,000 members, and collected over 9,000 petitions supporting the trail extension. We have recently documented there are at least 175,000 annual users of the Legacy Trail, even though the trail does not yet reach the urban core of the County.  The Gulf Coast Community Foundation recently provided TPL a $50,000 grant to support their efforts for the extension.  Representative Gruters has introduced a bill in the Florida Legislature to provide $15 million in 2017 for the extension.

Is $36 to $40 million a “good” price?

 The County presentation pegs the cost of the 7.5 mile corridor, including two short spurs, at $36 to $40 million.  That works out to about $5M per mile, compared to a $1.1M per mile in 2004 for the existing trail.

Though we haven’t seen the appraisal, we are told that the sale price is 14 percent below the October 2016 appraised value of property, based on the value of adjacent land.  When the County purchased the existing Legacy Trail corridor in 2004, the adjacent land was in large measure rural, undeveloped parks and pasture, with a few residential neighborhoods.  The extension corridor enters far more valuable – read expensive – highly develop suburban, urban, and some industrial areas.

The County presentation does not challenge the cost of the corridor, so we conclude that the County is comfortable with the negotiated cost.

Are there other County funds available?

The Legacy Trail is number 3 in the BCC top 2017 priorities.  The Sarasota County 2017 budget tops $1 billion, yet the County presentation only identifies funds from a future referendum, and the current County’s Neighborhood/Parkland Acquisition program to buy the corridor.  The latter totals about $8 million annually, most of which has already been committed to acquiring other smaller local parks.

We believe the County should be able to find other funds within its $1 Billion budget to apply towards the purchase of phase 1 of the rail corridor.  Examples include poorly executing programs, or lower priority efforts that can be delayed.  The newly implemented mobility fees (formerly called impact fees) were expressly structured in part to boost transportation options like bicycle paths.  Another option is to issue bonds in an amount below that required to seek voter approval.  The County has a low total debt service of 6.7% of the 2017 budget.

The County buried fiber optic and other utility lines under the current Legacy Trail.  They used the Communications Services Tax Fund, Utility Rates Fund, along with the General fund – Transportation Ad Valorum Fund and Surtax II (the 1% “discretionary” sales tax surcharge on top of the 6% FL sales tax) to buy the land and build the existing Legacy Trail.  Perhaps there are similar opportunities for the extension.

We hope the County Commissioners will look for additional funding opportunities within its current budget.

Is a voter referendum the best strategy?

At first glance, a referendum for the full purchase price offers the opportunity to acquire the entire 7.5 mile corridor in 2018, one year sooner than the two phased acquisition ending in 2019.

While appealing, this approach has a key flaw: it assures that County tax payers will bear the full cost of the purchase price.  The County paid about $35 million for the entire purchase and construction of the existing Legacy Trail from County funds, with FDOT paying only the cost of the Route 41 Overpass in Venice.

There is also substantial uncertainty in planning a referendum nearly two years in the future.  What will the economy be like at that time, both nationally and locally?  What will unemployment, interest rates, real estate valuations, and voter sentiment be at that time?  According to the County’s 2017 Financial Outlook, property taxes are the primary source of funding for the County’s General Fund.  The County saw an 8.2 percent growth in the property tax base last year, the fourth consecutive year of growth.

The Friends of the Legacy Trail believes a better approach is to seek other public and private funds sources, and is prepared to help the County to do so.

The County must commit its own funds to attract any potential Federal, State and private funds

The County presentation offers a list of potential Federal, State and private funding opportunities.  Most attractive is HB2109, introduced in the FY-2017 Florida legislature by Representative Joe Gruters whose district includes parts of Sarasota.  His bill would provide $15 million in 2017 from state transportation funds for the Legacy Trail.  The County lists the Legacy Trail expansion as a state legislative priority for 2017.

The Friends of the Legacy Trail have also suggested raising private funds for the purchase and construction of the trail extension through a variety of techniques including naming rights for portions of the trail.  We would work closely with the County staff and local philanthropic community foundations to structure such a program.

However, the County must show its resolve by committing some of its own funds in order to attract and leverage other non-county funds.  Absent such a commitment, there is no hope of securing any federal, state or private funds.  This opportunity is particularly time sensitive with the Florida legislature required to provide and the governor sign a balanced budget by the start of the Florida fiscal year on 1 July.  The lack of committed County funds between now and the next few months will doom any prospect of getting any financial assistance from the state, and pursuing private funds.

Extension takes a giant leap forward!!!!

by Roger Normand

The hope of thousands of supporters to extend the Legacy Trail to downtown Sarasota has just taken a giant leap forward.  FLT has learned CSX Corporation, owner of the rail corridor, and their lessee Seminole Gulf Railroad (SGR), have now signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) to sell the corridor to the Trust for Public Land (TPL) who would then transfer title to Sarasota County.

It has been a long, tortuous haul for trail advocates since the County Commissioners met in April 2015 to review the Feasibility Study on the extension and directed county staff to begin discussions to acquire the corridor from CSX.  The Florida Department of Transportation intervened shortly afterwards with their own thoughts to acquire the corridor along with others across the state.  It remains unclear what that accomplished, other than consuming some 9 months before FDOT relinquished their interest back to Sarasota County in February 2016.

Since then, TPL resumed negotiating the terms and conditions for the sale of the 7.7-mile, 100-foot wide corridor that spans from Culverhouse Nature Park near Clark Road to Payne Park in the heart of the city of Sarasota.  The appraisal of the corridor was completed in October 2016.  FLT has learned that the parties are now working to finalize the contract terms and conditions.

The LOI will not be available to the public.  We will have to wait for those pesky (!) details like the selling price and other terms in the proposed contract.  Once completed, we expect a public meeting of the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) in mid-February to discuss the sale offer, and decide how best to proceed, particularly concerning County funding options. Stay tuned for further details, including the date of the BCC.  We hope to see as many trail supporters wearing their yellow Extend the Legacy shirts as possible at the BCC.  We will let you, our dedicated trail supporters, know immediately through all our media outlets as soon as possible.

In the meantime. let’s all celebrate this major milestone.  The LOI represents a willingness by CSX and SGR to sell the corridor at a negotiated price.   That’s really big news.  All aboard the Legacy Trail Extension.  Next stop: the BCC!