TALLAHASSEE — Florida bicyclists this year may achieve their dream: a safe, nature-lined bicycle trail connecting the state's coastlines.
State policymakers are lining up behind a $50 million plan to tie together biking trails throughout Central Florida. Many see it both as an bonus for residents and a new draw for tourists who want to enjoy the state's natural beauty.
The trail, called the Coast to Coast Connector, would be 275 miles of unbroken bicycle path stretching from the Gulf of Mexico in St. Petersburg through Metro Orlando east to the Canaveral National Seashore on the Atlantic Ocean.
The project is the first of its kind in the nation, and it could go a long way to soften Florida's status as the most dangerous place for bicyclists in the country, supporters say.
"This is going to be a real game changer for the state of Florida," Dale Allen, president of the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation, told lawmakers earlier this month. "Not only are we known as a dangerous state for bicyclists and pedestrians, tragically we're the No. 1 most dangerous state in the United States for this. And it's known in the tourist community that we're dangerous. This will help us change that dynamic."
Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the project last year, saying its funding deviated from the Department of Transportation's normal process for prioritizing road projects in different regions. This year, it's being sold as a top priority of all 11 metropolitan planning organizations within its path.
And it appears the governor — who attended a ribbon cutting for one link in Titusville in October — might have had a change of heart.
"I'll be putting my budget out later this month," Scott said last week. "But look, bike trails are something important to our state. I want to continue to get more tourists down here."
With an expected surplus of $1.2 billion this spring, lawmakers who support the idea are confident the outcome will be different this year.
Florida may be a place that touts itself as a land of eternal summers. But when it comes to outdoor all-terrain activities such as biking, there's a glaring gap between the Sunshine State and others, supporters say.
"When you look at other parts of the country, you travel to California, they've got a whole range of financial problems, but one area where they still stand out is eco-tourism," said Senate President-designate Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican pushing the project.
Gardiner, an avid runner and bicyclist, used to compete in triathlons. He was sold two years ago on the trail project by former Orange County Mayor Linda Chapin.
While mayor in the 1990s, Chapin pushed for completion of the 25-mile West Orange Trail that converted abandoned railroad tracks through downtown Winter Garden into a multimillion-dollar economic stimulus. What had become a deserted downtown started rebounding, with antique stores, theaters and restaurants.
"Of any of the things I did while in public office, that would be pretty close to the top of the list," Chapin said.
Gardiner grew up in west Orange County, has known Chapin since his Little League days and was already a disciple because he had watched the turnaround as Apopka's chamber of commerce president.
Most of the trails throughout the Central Florida and Tampa Bay areas are already built. They just don't connect to one another.
In Central Florida, the plan calls for closing gaps separating the West Orange Trail from the Seminole Wekiva Trail, and a longer gap tying into the Space Coast lap reaching Titusville.
Eventually, the trail could be connected to similar efforts in Jacksonville, Hillsborough County and Naples. South Florida "rails-to-trails" supporters are even studying the feasibility of a bike trail along the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades, connecting Miami to Naples.
"It's a very big vision," Allen said.
The Florida Department of Transportation has already announced four connector projects have been advanced in its five-year work plan, including a half-mile segment in Brevard and 10 miles of trail in Volusia County.
The final gaps would likely be filled in during the next five years if lawmakers and Scott agree to start the funding this year with around $10 million, supporters said.
"All we're trying to do is close the gaps," Gardiner said. ''There are different groups that say, 'Let's travel to Montana and do a bike ride.' They should be thinking about Florida."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun