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A feasibility study is in the works to implement a 14-mile walking and biking trail through Lee County.  

Deb Orton has been a cyclist her entire life and is one of many who don’t feel safe riding her bike near Lee County roads, which are known for having some of the highest bicycle fatality numbers in the state. Florida consistently has the highest bicycle death rate in the country each year.   

In June, Orton attended a Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting to learn about the current study for potential uses of the Seminole Gulf Railway corridor from Bonita Beach Road to Alico Road.  

Orton was quick to show full support for developing this part of the railroad, which has been unused for more than 10 years, into a 12-foot-wide paved trail. Orton co-founded The Friends of the Bonita Estero River Trail in September, and it has almost 500 members.  

“Every day I’m processing 10 to 20 new members because they want that trail,” Orton said. “And quite honestly for me and my friends it’s the safety aspect. We don’t have a place to ride, we have to drive everywhere we go.” 

The planning organization works with local government entities to identify projects which would increase transportation efficiency and safety. The current study, which will be finished by the end of the month, outlines three proposed alternatives for use of the Seminole Gulf Rail.

The first being purchasing the rail, taking the rails off and putting down a path. The second plan of action involves keeping the rail as it is and building a trail beside it. And lastly, creating a more road-focused side path, with ample space between the road and path.  

“[Alternative 3] would not be to the benefit so much to Bonita Springs at that point because the rail doesn’t go right through downtown,” Orton said.   

The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization with a goal of implementing quality parks and green spaces around communities across the country, is working with the county and planning organization to try to make many Southwest Florida cyclists’ dream a reality.  

Former Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines was on the commission when the Trust for Public Land acquired and built Legacy Trail that extends from Sarasota south to Venice. When Hines’ term as a commissioner ended, the Trust for Public Land asked him to be the director of the Florida Gulf Coast Trail. The end goal for the Gulf Coast Trail is a 336-mile-corridor through seven Florida counties. The Legacy Trail and the ideal Bonita Estero Trail are part of this Gulf Coast Trail.  

Hines has been working closely with Orton and Friends of the Bonita Estero Rail Trail and is giving them advice to closely follow what the Friends of the Legacy Trail made happen in Sarasota.  

“I basically told them my suggestion would be to mirror with the Friends of the Legacy Trail did in Sarasota County, they just were a true grassroots organization of a lot of diverse people, but they all had a common goal. They wanted trail system,” Hines said. “And they formed a nonprofit, bought their T-shirts, began lobbying and advocating for the trail, and they just kept growing and growing and growing. I said, as an elected official, when you have people that put blood, sweat and tears and their money and their time into a project, and they’re well-coordinated, they’re professional, they’re consistent, it’s hard to say no.” 

There was such great support for a trail in Sarasota County that a referendum was created to add a separate tax category to fund the acquisition of the rail from Seminole Gulf and construct the green space. The referendum passed by more than 70%.  

Hines is unsure whether a referendum scenario like this is possible for the Bonita Estero Rail Trail since it will be dealing with multiple municipalities. The trail encompasses unincorporated Lee County, Bonita Springs, Estero and potentially a small part of Collier County.  

“It’s a little more complicated, and some people have more money than others, some jurisdictions are more enthusiastic than others,” Hines said. “With the hurricane, I’m sure some are going to say ‘Look, we love trails, but that’s not our biggest priority right now.’” 

The last appraisal of the railway was more than two years ago, and values have changed since. It’s been proven difficult to coordinate with all the players involved to come to an agreement on a purchasing price. Because of this, raising funds is moving at a much slower pace compared to the scenario of the Legacy Trail.  

“It’s hard to go raise money if you don’t have the land under control,” Hines said. “So if you go out and you try to raise money, whether from the state or the feds or local people, they are going to say, ‘Well, okay, can we raise all the money when you close?’ Well, we don’t have a closing date, because we don’t have it under contract. It’s all speculation.” 

It is uncertain how damage from Hurricane Ian to the rail will impact the new appraisal.  

“It could either decrease the value, which you would think, or [the county] is going to get a lot of federal transportation dollars, just do a bunch of upgrades and say now it’s worth more. So that’s where it’s just almost impossible to guess at this point,” Hines said. 

The next step for the Estero Bonita Rail Trail will be the planning organization presenting its feasibility study report to both Estero and Bonita Springs in December. Hines hopes residents and government bodies alike see the reaping benefits of trails in communities.  

“Trails aren’t just a place to ride a bike, they are a linear park that connect up neighborhoods and connect businesses,” Hines said. “They give people a safe place to exercise, get to work, get to school and they do incredible economic redevelopment.”  

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