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.

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.