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The Bonita Estero Rail Trail project hit a milestone four years in the making, with Trust for Public Land securing a purchase and sale agreement on a 14.9-mile segment of the Seminole Gulf Railway that stretches from Alico Road to Collier County for $82 million.  

Trust for Public Land, or TPL, is a national nonprofit land conservation organization that works to connect land and people. Over the last 30 years, TPL has acquired more than 45 rail-trail corridors, adding hundreds of miles of recreational trails within and between communities across the country. 

For Bonita Estero Rail Trail, the recently announced purchase and sale agreement is the site control needed to begin seeking funding for the project.  

“The funding plan, because it’s a high value property being it’s a rail corridor in the middle of urbanized area, which is very hard and very valuable to the community, is going to involve lots of funding sources,” TPL Southeast Region Conservation Director Doug Hattaway said. 

Ultimately, funding is expected to come from local, state and federal levels, along with TPL attempting to raise funds philanthropically.  

The cut-off time to establish funding sources is March 2026, giving TPL two years to pull it all together. 

“One of the first steps we do in our business is make sure we have site control,” Hattaway said. “Then we jump into the project in terms of working with the communities to get it done and converted into a multiuse path. We’re getting underway now more actively in the public sphere.” 

Bonita Estero Rail Trail is a small part of the bigger picture of completing the 420-mile-long Florida Gulf Coast Trail, or FGCT. “TPL has a program to lead efforts to finish the connections from Tampa-St. Petersburg all the way down to Naples, so this 15-mile piece is a very significant portion that fills in one of the biggest gaps in the Southwest Florida corridor,” Hattaway said. 

TPL has already been involved with other portions of the FGCT, including as Legacy Trail in Sarasota County, as well as trails in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The Bonita Estero trail is planned to connect to the John Yarbrough trail, which leads into downtown Fort Myers. 

“Then getting across the river and into Charlotte County is an important part that needs to be worked on, as well,” Hattaway said. “So, there are gaps and there are some beautifully completed portions, as well.” 

Generally, Hattaway said trails have numerous public benefits, with one being safety by separating pedestrians, cyclists and schoolchildren from roads. “Florida and the southwest coast of Florida particularly is among the top ranked most deadly places for pedestrians and cyclists,” he said. “You’re talking about decreasing fatalities.” 

For Bonita Estero Rail Trail, it’s conversion to a trail will allow more than 70,000 residents to be within a 10-mile walk or bike ride to what’s described by TPL as a regional asset. 

There are also 11 schools along the Bonita Estero trail, equating to 10,000 students who go to school within a mile of the trail.  

Economic development is another key component, Hattaway said. “This is not like a square piece of land in the middle of a road that ends up being a park, which is great and needed, but it’s not nearly as impactful as a linear park in the built environment connecting communities,” he said.  

“People can get to their jobs. It’s particularly beneficial to lower-income households because transportation costs are not small potatoes and allowing for people to go shopping and to meet one another creates a sense of community and place,” Hattaway said. 

Friends of the Bonita Estero Rail Trail, or BERT, is a local advocacy group for the trail project, currently with 3,300 members in its second year of operation.  

President of Friends of BERT Deb Orton said the secured purchase and sale agreement now makes everything real. 

“It’s extremely exciting for really everyone, but it doesn’t have to be a bike rider to be excited about this,” she said. “This is about opening up people who are shut in right now because they have no way of commuting.”  

Orton said this trail is bigger than just a bike path, it’s really a way to connect people and places.  

“We have an opportunity to take cars off the road and have a nonmotorized travel option for commuting, for running errands and for meeting each other,” she said. 

Hattaway said TPL looks forward to working with all the communities and leaders to make the trail happen. “We’re excited to get to the finish line,” he said.

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