Cycling enthusiasts have long dreamed of having a paved trail through the center of Florida that would give riders a continuous path from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
Now that vision may become reality.
The budget the Legislature passed last week includes $50 million to create a 275-mile "Coast to Coast Connector" by filling gaps between existing trails, from Canaveral National Seashore on the east coast to St. Petersburg on the west. In Central Florida, the trail would cut through portions of Lake, Orange, Seminole, Volusia and Brevard counties.
If Gov. Rick Scott approves money for the project this month, the cross-Florida supertrail would become the longest continuous bike path in the state, and one of the longest in the country.
Such a trail, supporters say, would draw thousands of bike-loving tourists and spark new businesses in communities along the route. It also would be a big step in Florida's efforts to build a trail network that would allow cyclists to pedal throughout the state without competing with cars.
"This would be a huge economic generator for the state," said Tim Bustos, executive director of the Florida Bicycle Association. "There will be people coming in from out of the state and even from around the world to ride this entire trail, and they will spend a week or even several days doing it. … For the governor, this should be a slam-dunk in approving this."
Scott, however, could kill the project with a line-item veto. On Friday, his office would say only that Scott is reviewing the proposal.
To create the trail, the state would have to bridge 72 miles of gaps between more than a dozen regional trails in nine counties. Generally, the trails are about 14 feet wide, allowing enough space for cyclists and pedestrians to share them safely.
In Central Florida, that means filling a 2-mile gap between existing trails in Seminole and Volusia counties; a 3-mile gap in Orange County; and a 30-mile gap — known as the Van Fleet Gap — between the South Lake Trail and the Withlacoochee State Trail in Sumter County.
The state already has acquired most of the land to complete the links, except for the Van Fleet Gap.
The $50 million would be doled out by the state's Department of Transportation during five years in $10 million increments. It would come from a state transportation trust fund designated for projects that promote tourism and economic development.
State Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican and avid bicyclist who helped get the money in the budget, said supertrails — paved trails that take bicyclists several days to travel from end to end — are a big draw for out-of-state visitors. And an increase in visitors can lead to new hotels, restaurants and shops along the route.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for Florida," Gardiner said. "All you have to do is Google 'bike trips' and you'll see that they are all over the country and the world," Gardiner said of supertrails. "And they are tremendously popular."
Staff members for Gardiner said they haven't heard of any opposition to funding the trail.
Michael Edwards, executive director of the redevelopment authority of Connellsville, Pa., a city of about 7,000 bisected by the Great Allegheny Passage, said his community has seen new bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and shops come in since the first section of the trail opened in 1986. Connellsville also holds annual art festivals and concerts attended by visiting trail users.
"The longer that people are on a trail, the more that the smaller communities along the route benefit," he said. "And it has really helped our community."
Winter Garden, for example, has seen new restaurants and shops open because of the West Orange Trail.
But a longer trail, such as the proposed Coast to Coast Trail, would have a different economic impact for the region, said Dale Allen, president of the Florida Greenways & Trails Foundation.
"If you have a short trail, one that's for day use only, it leads to certain kinds of new businesses. But once that trail gets longer than 50 miles, then it starts acting like a magnet in bringing in people from out of state, and that leads to hotels and other businesses," he said.
That's good news for counties such as Lake and Seminole that have long looked for ways to draw visitors.
"With this trail you would have people that start on the Atlantic Coast, and when they come into Seminole County, they will stay in hotels in Seminole County," said County Commission Chairman Bob Dallari. "So it's a great tourist attraction, and it's great for economic development."
If Scott signs off on the funding, construction on filling in the gaps could start as soon as this year and be completed within five years.
The Coast to Coast Trail also would serve as the southern half of the proposed 250-mile Heart of Florida Greenway Loop. Still in the planning stages, the loop would connect the gaps between several existing trails in the center of the state.
It would stretch north through Ocala National Forest and hook over to the 300-mile St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop along Florida's east coast. Still under construction, the St. Johns loop may eventually connect St. Augustine with Kennedy Space Center. The five counties along the route are funding the project, though the sluggish economy has stalled construction.
"Bike trails are really great values for the citizens of Florida, whether you ride a bike or not," said Howard Larlee, owner of Orange Cycle in Orlando's College Park. "They take you through places in Florida that you otherwise wouldn't see while in a car."
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