Do You Want the Latest Updates About the Expansion of Every Major Bike Trail in Florida?

Video Transcription:

Jim Dodson: Hey, good morning, it's Jim Dodson, The Florida Bike Guy. I'm a bicycle injury accident lawyer in Clearwater. Welcome to our live stream. We've got an exciting guest for you today. If you have any interest or curiosity or concern about the growing and expanding trail system and how it's gonna effect your local area, we have the guest who's going to answer all those questions. We've got Dale Allen, who is the president of the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation.

Dale Allen: Hey Jim.

Jim Dodson: Dale, why don't you introduce yourself and tell us about the foundation.

Dale Allen: Thanks Jim, it's a pleasure to be here today. Thank you very much for inviting me. The Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation is the state's leading advocacy organization for connecting our local bicycle trails together into a state-wide and regional system. This effort has been underway, seriously, for about five years now and I'm thrilled to tell you Jim, that the response to this, state-wide, has been really quite phenomenal. The need for safe transportation quarters for bicycles is critical in the state of Florida. And not only is the connected trails improving the safety of the average bicyclist who wants to be outdoors and enjoying our year-round weather, but it's also generating a lot of interest from the tourist development councils. Florida's a destination state and this is another major asset that we're gonna be bringing to the global market place.

Jim Dodson: Well, it's pretty fascinating to me, for those of you who don't know, Dale is a volunteer. So this is a volunteer organization, he does have his travel expenses paid for, but they are substantial. I think you've done 100 presentations in the last couple years around the Florida state.

Dale Allen: Yes, that's correct.

Jim Dodson: He's based in Tallahassee which today is a pretty cool weather-wise place to be.

Dale Allen: Beautiful.

Jim Dodson: So Dale, talk about, I know that this all germinated out of a concept that we had, some pretty significant trail segments that were already in place. I'm down in Pinellas County, we had the Pinellas Trail, which is probably one of the oldest large trails in Florida. So tell me how the idea of connecting these trails, becoming a system, how that has germinated into what it is today.

Dale Allen: Great question Jim, thank you. Yeah, the trail movement actually began about 30 years ago when our great railroad system began to be abandoned, wholesale, and the first trail that was ever created was in Tallahassee, Florida, the Tallahassee, the St. Marks Trail about 16 mile connector. But shortly thereafter, local governments started getting into the act and the Pinellas Trail was the first major urban trail in the state of Florida and it's also on an old abandoned railroad quarter that the county acquired. There have been other trails converted like this over the years and when we began in 2010 and 11', there were over 60 local trails in the state of Florida, but none of them were serving for transportation purposes. They were extremely important from recreational points of view, people love their local trails, because it's a safe place for people to ride during the entire year in Florida, but you really couldn't get from the Pinellas Trail anywhere outside of Pinellas County. And what we decided to do was to raise the visibility of all that we had accomplished with the 60 trails state-wide, but telling a slightly different story and we began to tell the transportation story in central Florida. And we chose central Florida because it had 14 existing trail segments: the Pinellas Trail, the West Orange Trail, the Good Neighbor Trail in Brooksville, the Suncoast Trail. But they were all in pieces, segments. And we began to say, you know if we could just close seven gaps between these 14 trails and link them all together, you could go from the Atlantic Ocean at the Canaveral National Seashore or Playalinda Beach, all the way across Florida and then end up in St. Petersburg on the waterfront next to the Salvador Dali Museum. And all of sudden, a light bulb kind of went off in a lot of state officials eyes. They began to understand this as a transportation endeavor, more than just a recreational endeavor. So the Coast to Coast Trail is the first one I ever met you about, and it was designed to connect, thus the name the Coast to Coast Connector Trail, connect those 14 trails together into the first ever long-distance trail in Florida. A trail that is being built right now! And it'll be 250 miles when it's completed. We're down to about 40 miles of gaps in the system. I think you can see now on your screen, most of that trail it's the trail that's marked in blue, that goes from the left hand side of your screen in Pinellas County, connects across the blue trail to Brooksville, and then eventually all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Where the circles are on that map, you can see where the major gaps were. There was a major gap in the Pinellas Trail, at the north end and into Pasco County, that's now almost closed. There was a major gap between in Brooksville, that's under development right now. And then the other trails as you come from west to east, there's active work going on in all those trails. In fact, there's another major dedication scheduled for December 20th in Volusia County. So the trail is now being built, connected, and probably within another two years it's gonna be almost 95% complete.

Jim Dodson: So just put that in perspective, so how far can someone today travel on that trail non-stop?

Dale Allen: On the Coast to Coast, the longest continuous segment is about 45 miles.

Jim Dodson: Okay.

Dale Allen: And then when Pasco and Pinellas connect together, which will happen this year, in 2019, you'll be probably close to about 100 miles, of continuous connected trail. connects will be up to about 150 and then when it's all connected across it'll be 250. It will be the longest continuous paved off-road trail system in the southeast.

Jim Dodson: Wow, that's pretty impressive. So, these urban trails obviously began in the urban centers. There's a unique transformation taking people from urban to rural. Talk about that and what is required to make that happen.

Dale Allen: What's going on Jim, if you'll notice from the map we just had up, most of the gaps are in the rural areas of the urban counties, North Pinellas County is the most rural part of the whole county. From the county's point of view, they were almost done with this trail, they only had three more miles to go before they got to the Pasco County line. So they weren't really focused on the importance of that three miles until we brought them and said, "well yeah, but you can't get out of Pinellas County" if we close that six mile gap, all of a sudden now you can get almost all the way to Brooksville. That appealed to a lot of bicyclists who enjoy the Pinellas Trail but it's all continuously. This opens up a world of other places you can ride to from Pinellas County. So the rural areas are the counties that really need the most assistance right now. Most rural counties don't even have county parks departments who, by and large, in the urban areas are the managers for these trails. They're the ones who keep the trails clear, keep the bathrooms clean, pick up the trash, all those pedestrian things that make such an importance on the trails. Rural counties just don't have that and that's one of the things we're hoping to address during the Florida legislative session is trying to find a matching grant program for the rural Get them up to speed with the urban areas.

Jim Dodson: Alright, you mentioned legislature. So something major happened in trail construction two years ago when you got some recurring funding. Talk about that and tell us about what it costs to build a trail, how much does it cost per mile to put a trail in? With or without the right of way.

Dale Allen: Yeah, the average cost of these trails if we own the land corridor, like if we're building a trail within a road right of way, where the county or the state already owns the road, runs about half a million dollars a mile. You've got to build the bed, make sure that it drains, the trail doesn't flood during heavy rain events, and then you've gotta paint it. So it's about half a million dollars a mile. For a 12 foot wide trail, it's actually cheaper than a lot of sidewalks because the materials that are required are not so expensive. So about half a million dollars. If we don't have the land purchasing the right of way and that can double the cost of these trails, even triple in some of the urban areas where land is expensive. To the big event part of your question, in 2015, after a couple of years of educating the state elected officials, the legislature passed a significant piece of legislation called SUN Trails, s-u-n trails. And SUN is an acronym for shared use, non-motorized. So these are designed to be regionally connected bicycle trails and they embedded in the legislation, 25 million dollars from the state transportation trust fund to build these trails! And they said DOT, go forth and start connecting all these local trails together into a state-wide system. And the map that's on the screen now is kind of a quick and dirty shot of what we're talking about here now. The state has the master plan and you're looking at it on the map image here. That master 15 long distance regional trails, the Coast to Coast being the number one. On this map, is that blue trail that comes across the center of the state, but you can see that there are other trails. There's a pink trail right above the Coast to Coast, that's what we call the Heart of Florida loop. That trail is about 60% done. The yellow loop trail, that's a loop trail. It's also receiving state funding now. It will also be over 200 miles in length. So you can see right in central Florida, we have three long distance loop trails that are more than 50% finished, but they're still all in pieces. So within the next five to ten years, most of these... will be substantially connected and available to the bike-riding public. The other two big trails that you asked me about are down in southeast Florida, but one coming down the gulf coast, Pinellas County through Tampa all the way to Naples. That's generating a lot of interest in Lee, in Collier, and Sarasota County. In fact, in Sarasota County, just this last November, the county voters approved a multi-million dollar bond to acquire the remaining CSX quarter right of way to connect the Legacy Trail all the way from Venice to the downtown Sarasota and so that piece is being built with local government monies. The east coast of Florida where the Coast to Coast goes through Titusville, those counties along the Florida southeast gulf coast, they're all-in on this and they're actively working. Palm Beach, Broward, Dade County, Martin County, they're all actively looking at their trail maps and working to build those trails. So with these five trails completed, Florida could very quickly move from being the most dangerous place in the United States for bicycles, to one of the most desirable places in the United States for bicycle traffic and the effect is not lost on our tourist development councils and chambers of commerce. They have been avidly supporting this work.

Jim Dodson: So talk about some of the impact for municipalities and for the state that a real effective built out state-wide trail system would provide.

Dale Allen: There are really big benefits for these trails to the local governments. Number one, is it provides a safe place for bicyclists to ride and enjoy bicycling again. When I was a kid growing up I lived on my bike, but the roads were a lot safer then. I ran a paper route when I was ten years old, on my bicycle, at ten years old. It's not really possible to do that these days, okay? Building a bicycle system that functions as transportation and is safe for the average bicyclist, not your road sophisticated bicyclist, but your average family bicyclist, is a huge thing for the people. If we get people out and riding their bikes again, we're gonna have a healthier population. And the most telling statistic, Jim, that I'm aware of, is that Floridians love their bicycles. Nine out of every ten households in Florida report having at least one, if not more, bicycles. Only one out of ten use them. And when you ask them, "why don't you use them?", "roads are too dangerous", so, this addresses that concern. So people once again feel safe and start riding their bikes and can go places, they're gonna start going to work, they're gonna go to state parks, they're gonna be active in the outdoors and what a climate we have for that, right? Our very flat topography all of a sudden could become our greatest asset, we're not riding mountains here, we're riding on fairly level topography. So safety and health, but the third one, and this is not insignificant, all over the nation where communities have invested in these trails, the economic payoffs are huge. You know what happened to the Dunedin around the Pinellas Trail, 30%-

Jim Dodson: Winter Garden, Titusville.

Dale Allen: Yep, all these, Winter Garden on the West Orange Trail, they've become extremely desirable places to live and one of the funny statistics that I became aware of on the Pinellas Trail was, when the trail first went in people felt so threatened by the trail, they had built fences between their backyards and the trail. Now if you go down the trail it's a rare house that doesn't have a gate so they can get out onto the trail! So the image of these trails as places that are crime-ridden and dangerous has turned 180 degrees, to having a trail in your backyard will increase your house value 10-15%, imagine that.

Jim Dodson: Now subdivisions are being advertised as having access.

Dale Allen: That's right, that's what realtors are all looking for. So, safety and economic prosperity, and redevelopment of some of our neglected downtown urban areas are the big three.

Jim Dodson: When we were talking the other day, I think you made the analogy to Wisconsin which is only, they ride up there six months of the year, they've got a sophisticated trail system. What's the economic benefit to the state up there?

Dale Allen: Well remember they've only got six months of summer at best up there so really the primary bicycle season is six months, but that six month bicycle season generates 1.2 billion dollars worth of economic activity for the state of Wisconsin. Back in Florida, which is already the biggest tourist destination, we're told by Visit Florida that one of the questions most frequently asked of visitors coming to Florida, "where can I be active in the outdoors?" And the answer is, well you can go to your state parks and hike some of the trails, in some of the regional parks and local parks, but you can't get on your bicycle and go great distances without being on the road system. And when you get on the road system, unfortunately as you know painfully well, the roads are not safe for bicyclists. We've had recently three or four more bicycle fatalities in southeast Florida, it's from distracted drivers, too many people on the roads I guess.

Jim Dodson: Right, so we also talked about the convergence of what's going on, we really don't have sustained opposition to what we're doing, the trail construction, you've really got the chamber of commerce and Triple A and some other big players who have kind of gotten behind this and are really supporting the expansion of trails. Talk about how that's helped and what you're looking for to do in terms of legislative session coming up to try to get more money.

Dale Allen: Yes, the big missing piece in converting Florida from the most dangerous state for bicyclists to the most desirable is whose gonna be responsible for managing those once they're built. Florida DOT have been very clear, they're willing to these trails and make them as safe as they can possibly engineer them, but the day-to-day upkeep of the trail, keeping them free of glass and debris, making sure the bathrooms are open and closed and cleaned, making sure that trash is picked up so that these trails stay amenities for our community and don't be come eyesores, that burden is falling on local governments. Local governments if they have the resources, like Pinellas County is very fortunate, you have an amazing parks department in Pinellas County, hundreds of staff devoted to keeping your parks clean. They're doing a brilliant job in Pinellas County keeping the trail up. If you go to a more rural county like Sumter County, or Hernado County, oftentimes they don't have parks departments and so they are struggling with this. They want the trails, they don't know how to maintain the trails and manage them. One of the biggest criticisms and perhaps the only criticism the trail community gets is that there's no dedicated fees that the bicycle community pays that supports all this. There's no registration fees, an annual bicycle tag that you have to get, there's no way to collect money and because the bicycle trails are so coarse, there's so many roads that intersect them. We never want to see a fee for riding on our trails, but we haven't solved the problem yet of how funds are generated locally to maintain these trails. As a result, when local government gets into question period, upkeep and maintenance of the trails are one of the first things that's cut. Often when trails are not maintained, they quickly become less desirable, potential eyesores in a community and we don't want that to happen. So working on legislature with the request for some state funding that will be used, hopefully through the department of economic opportunity or through DEP or one of the other state-level agencies, matching grants to local governments to build more trail heads, public access facilities, and to be able to manage the trails they've got and the new pieces that are being added to the system every month. That's the biggest challenge we've got right now.

Jim Dodson: Right, and you've talked about that you've gotten a lot of support, businesses have gotten behind it, Triple A has gotten behind it?

Dale Allen: Yeah, the business community sees these trails as a tremendous asset in their communities. There's no convincing them of this. These trails are a major infrastructure project for the state of Florida and they're being viewed like that. We don't have adequate signage on a lot of these trails. When trails connect people may not know which way to go on the trails, 'cause you may cross a road, intersect a sidewalk and getting lost. So there's no funding for all that stuff. We know that trail heads should be spaced probably about 10 miles apart for the bicycle community because of our summer thunderstorms. You're very exposed when these storms come up fast and you're out there on the trail, you need a place where you can go and get into some shelter. We're not organized at that level yet, there's no funding source for all that. So, again the legislature has been very supportive of all this, they don't like the idea of Florida being known as the most dangerous state in America for walkers and pedestrians and bicyclists, but we don't have yet a fully developed system for how to both build the trails and maintain them and market them yet, but that's what we're working towards.

Jim Dodson: Alright, that's terrific. So, I think one of the things you told me that was surprising, as cyclists we assume we're the ones using the trail, that we're the number one user of these urban trails and these trails that are connecting with the more rural areas and that's simply not the case.

Dale Allen: Yeah, I was very surprised to learn that at a trails conference a couple years ago, they actually went out and counted it and it turns out that bicycles only represent 20% of the trail users. The pedestrians by far and away are the largest users of these trails and that means everybody. People walking for exercise. Elderly especially love the trails because they can get out without worrying constantly about being struck by a car. Mothers with strollers, one of the huge users out there. Trying to recover from birth, they're out there exercising with their babies. Handicapped individuals, mobility impaired people love these trails. Kids use them to get back and forth to school these days! Like in the old days we used to ride our bikes to school, but now the roads are too dangerous so we have trails for the kids. Rollerbladers, trail supporters, all the new kinds of people propelled vehicles that are showing up in our cities. Scooters, scooters are a huge new coming up! So those are all the people that are out there using these trails and one of the things that DOT is finding and chambers of commerce are finding out, is that these trails are full of people. Pinellas County I think gets up to 60, 70,000 people a month on the Pinellas Trail, that's almost a million users over the course of the year. And businesses are following that level of traffic and volume and it's freeing up capacity on the roads. So it's making it actually safer for the motorists, they're not constantly dodging things or pulling out of their lanes to get around things. Now, having said that, I think our roads should still be engineered to be safer for bicycles. The bicycle community has every right to be on those roads as the motorists do, 'cause they're a moving vehicle. But the reality is that nine out of ten Floridians won't do that, they won't go out on the roads. Without something like a trail, they're simply not gonna use their bicycles.

Jim Dodson: Well, a lot of the people watching this program are probably more long-distance cyclers, the recreational cyclers, the more serious recreational cyclers that are putting in mileage. A lot of people are gonna use the urban trail to get to the rural area to do the extra mileage, they want to do the 50, 60 mile ride. And this is what they're really taking advantage of, all this connection going on. You leave Pinellas County and go to Pasco County, for instance, north of us, it's gorgeous up there because there's nobody around.

Dale Allen: That's exactly it and that's the next big piece, you just put your finger on it. Think of the SUN Trail System that we just talked about that the legislature created and now DOT is building, it's kind of the inter-state system for bicycle transport in Florida, which showed on the map, when it's finished, and probably it's gonna be 30 to 50 years, you'll be able to bicycle from Pensacola to Key West, all off road, now imagine that. But, like the interstate system, if that's all we have, it wouldn't work, we'd still need to get from our communities where we live, in our towns, to where we really want to go and that may mean we want to get on a piece of the regional trail but we gotta connection before we get on the regional trail and after we get off the regional trail to be able to get to it. So, someone coming off of the Coast to Coast Trail may decide they want to go to Blue Springs. Well to do that, they've got to get on the roads, so we're looking at the next phase, once we get the regional trails connected all over Florida, 50 of these regional trails built, then how do people really want to travel in the system? From downtowns to destinations. And when we get to that point we're gonna start looking like a lot of the communities in Europe where the numbers of riders get to be in the millions.

Jim Dodson: And that's coming!

Dale Allen: And we can do it, that's next!

Jim Dodson: Exactly, so Dale, there's a lot of people that will have access to looking at this program. What would you tell them the number one thing that they can do to make the biggest impact on making trails, creating trails, and making riding safer for them as cyclists?

Dale Allen: Well we have a webpage, the foundation has a website, which has a lot of these maps on it. So probably step one, would be to go to our website and research maps and become familiar with it. That's just education, the most important thing they need to do is contact their officials. Both their local elected officials and their state elected officials, so their state senators, state representatives, and tell them how important these paved trails are to their community and to them. It doesn't take a lot of voices, and we're talking here two to three dozen people, that if they were to pick up the phone and call their state representative and say, "I'm an avid bicycle rider, people come to Florida wanting to ride these trails, I need you to support additional funding for our state trail system". That would have a huge effect, so I'm asking three dozen of your viewers today to do that. Just contact their local elected officials, contact their state representatives, make them aware of how important this is. That's 10 to 15 minutes, it'll have a huge impact. If you need assistance doing that, the best source is, I believe, the Florida Bicycle Association, FBA. Florida Bicycle Association has been working for many years to make our roads safer. They fully endorse the state-wide trail system and so as they work to make our roads safer, they're also lobbying for more support for our trails. So go to FBA, Florida Bicycle Association, contact them, get them to help you and ask them. Ask FBA for help with letter writing or other things that they're doing. FBA is the place to go.

Jim Dodson: So I want follow with one more plug for the FBA, of course I'm on the board of the FBA, I've been there for many years and our executive director, Becky Afonso, is really well-regarded. Tell our viewers how regarded Becky is in terms of her legislative work.

Dale Allen: I'm glad to do so, Jim. Glad to do so, over the last three years Becky and the Florida Bicycle Association have become well known in Tallahassee as a credible source of information, a very responsible group in terms of their advocacy work, and extremely knowledgeable on the issues. So they were behind the Move Over legislation, the texting legislation, the law that was passed for hit and run drivers, I can't remember the name of that legislation, it was named after a gentleman who was struck by a motorist and the motorist fled. And because of FBA's advocacy, that law standardized the punishments across the board. It was a misdemeanor, I believe, if you struck a motorist and fled, now it's a felony if you strike a motorist, a bicyclist and fled, now it's a felony. So all that work has been tremendously powerful and the bicycle groups that are members of FBA are feeling the benefits of this because FBA's advocacy's effecting the whole state of Florida and effecting the safety of all the bicycle clubs in Florida. So if you're a member of a your club is trying to fix that. Because the strength in numbers is significant and the bicycle community has not had the significance that it's entitled to in Tallahassee, 'cause we haven't been well organized, but we're getting very well organized, FBA is leading that charge.

Jim Dodson: Yeah and Becky's putting together a coalition of legislators who are bicycle advocates and I think our viewers, you mentioned the other day when we spoke, that there are people that have been recently elected to legislature who are really serious cyclists. There's some tri competitors, there's other people that are serious cyclists, they may not list it on their resume or their bio, but if cyclists connect with them and make that connection, it can make a huge impact.

Dale Allen: Absolutely, in fact, that's what triggered all this. I had gotten a chance to go in and see the incoming senate president on the 2012, 2015 legislature, senator Andy Gardiner, he was the incoming senate president. And I thought I was gonna be five minutes in his office and as I explained this Coast to Coast Trail and what significance it was gonna have for Florida and his district, next thing I knew it was an hour. And I said to Senator Gardiner, "Senator, you're extremely interested in this, can I ask you why?" And he said, "oh, I'm a triathlon, I ride these roads, I know" and there was no looking back. Senator Gardiner became our champion. The next thing I know, a lot of these young, incoming republican legislators, they're very competitive athletes and they run long distances, they're avid outdoors people, and they love bicycles, and maybe in the years to come they'll put that on their resume as being the most significant attribute they bring to the legislature, but many of them yet don't do that. But we're working to change that as well.

Jim Dodson: Well and it's interesting too because these random, that conversation with Senator Gardiner, what you learned and the connection you made was really kind of unexpected and that's the serendipity of having just a small number of people who make a strong connection with someone on their local team. What a huge impact that makes. It only takes one or two people who lead the charge, people aren't opposing, they need to be lead. Especially in legislature, they need to be lead. One or two strong leaders will take charge of this.

Dale Allen: That's exactly right and that's what FBA is doing and that's what the foundation is doing. Our role mostly has been to articulate what we need to do and then let the membership-based organizations like FBA and the rest of the trails conservancy, let them carry the weight to the legislature 'cause they can activate 5-10,000 emails, on an issue like this once we're all focused. So I really appreciate you doing this, Jim, because this gives me a way to reach a broader audience and if, again, if just three, four dozen people, sit down and do something, this incoming legislature will respond, I can promise you that.

Jim Dodson: That's tremendous, so Dale, I want to thank you for joining us today. The work that you have done and continue to do, that the foundation does, is so invaluable. I'm just so enthralled to hear you talk and the enthusiasm that you bring to this project, I know why it's infectious to those that you deal with as well.

Dale Allen: Well, it's a joy and I tell you, just one last personal story and then we can sign off. I go to yoga classes to try to keep fit and limber as I've grown older. Part of yoga that I have is sitting still and closing my mind and just emptying my mind and meditating. I found that I do my best meditating on my bicycle when I'm moving, going down the trail my mind opens up and I do my best thinking, when I'm peddling. So there's a huge benefit there that we haven't even talked about.

Jim Dodson: Another conversation!

Dale Allen: Next conversation!

Jim Dodson: Thank you so much Dale. This is Jim Dodson, I'm known as the Florida Bike Guy, if you don't know me, I'm a personal injury and bicycle injury lawyer down in Clearwater, but I represent clients throughout Florida. If I can ever be of help to you don't hesitate to call, with anything that we can help, there's never a fee to call. We will see you next time and Dale we'll be in touch, thank you so much.

Dale Allen: Thanks Jim!

Jim Dodson: Alright, buh-bye.

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A Florida injury lawyer, family man and avid cyclist who clients have trusted for over 25 years.