Florida has done little to distinguish itself as a bike and pedestrian friendly state; in fact, it's consistently ranked among the most dangerous in America for the two-wheeled set and for walkers.
So it's notable that among the hundreds of bills that went into effect this week is one that will funnel millions in state money toward new bike and pedestrian trails. But this is Florida, so the plan is not without controversy and detractors — even among biking advocates.
Senate Bill 2514-A requires the Department of Transportation to allot $25 million in annual funding for The Florida Shared-Use Nonmotorized Trail Network, also known as SunTrail, which aims to create a statewide network of bicycle and pedestrian paths. The hope, lawmakers say, is to help Floridians now have a safer system of biking and walking trails that are physically separated from roadways.
Earlier this year, lawmakers proposed $50 million for SunTrail, with half coming from an existing motor vehicle tax and the other from Amendment 1, which was approved by voters to direct certain tax revenue toward land acquisition and land improvements on conservation lands. Amendment 1 funding proved to be too controversial during the budget process, though, and that plan eventually faltered. The funding, instead, will only come from a motor vehicle tax.
Some are applauding the move, like executive director of Audubon Florida Eric Draper. He says the trails will make nature more accessible for residents and tourists. “One of my favorite things is to travel through nature and get outdoors,” says Draper. “This will definitely do just that.”
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However the funding does little to address arguably the biggest issue of bike safety: the lack of safe lanes for those daily urban commuters who ride bikes for day-to-day life. Draper hopes the government will look at ways to continue the expansion of off-road trails and find a solution to create more and safer city bike lanes as well.
“These trails don’t tend to be for people to get to work,” explains Draper. “They’re really just meant to be off-road connectors.”
There's also plenty of disagreement about the trails themselves. Among the trails eventually proposed for a statewide circuit is the so-called River of Grass Greenway that would stretch across the Everglades. Environmentalists and Native American activists have all protested that plan.
But according to the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation, most of the SunTrail will follow abandoned railways, canal banks, scenic highways or utility transmission lines. The foundation would like to bridge the gaps between trails and use the creation of SunTrail to make exploring Florida’s nature safer for all.