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Panama City News Herald: Money for bike, running trails part of special session

Panama City News Herald

By Jim Turner

23TALLAHASSEE — Voter-approved money for land and water conservation could be used to help create asphalt and concrete bicycle and running paths across Florida.

Among the bills that will be discussed in a special legislative session next month is a transportation measure (SB 7054) that would designate $50 million a year for the creation of a statewide network of bicycle and pedestrian paths known as SunTrail.

Half the money would come from Amendment 1, a voter-approved ballot initiative that requires 33 percent of the proceeds from an existing real-estate tax, known as documentary stamps, to go for land and water maintenance and acquisition.

Lawmakers will have to divvy up Amendment 1 money as they patch together the budget in the special session that begins June 1.

SunTrail, which stands for the Shared-Use Non-motorized Trail Network, is a priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. The trail network eventually could include Panhandle trails like Gayle’s Trails in Panama City Beach and the Chipola River Greenway in Jackson County.

“The president supports utilizing portions of doc stamp revenue dedicated to Amendment 1 to increase access to public lands,” Katie Betta, Gardiner’s spokeswoman, said in an email this week. “One of the ways the Senate budget and policy legislation contemplated achieving this goal is through the SunTrail Network.”

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott approved $15 million to help complete another of Gardiner’s projects, the 250-mile Coast-to-Coast Connector, a bicycle and jogging trail that will link St. Petersburg to the Space Coast.

Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli on Friday announced the details of the special session to craft a budget, with the transportation bill among the regular-session topics still alive.

The SunTrail measure is also the only surviving part of a Senate water-policy proposal (SB 918) that died when the regular legislative session came to an abrupt end without a completed budget. Also dying was a more business-friendly House water policy bill (HB 7003).

Environmentalists, who were not disappointed by the demise of the water-policy changes, believe bicycle and pedestrian trails can be a part of Amendment 1 funding. However, they want land acquisition and maintenance to remain top features.

“I don’t think the $25 million is out of the realm as long as there is funding for other parks, water and wildlife habitats,” Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper, a lobbyist on environmental issues, said Tuesday. “But if they only fund $10 million for land acquisition, that’s not very good. Not everyone is going to go ride a bike or go on a trail.”

The SunTrail proposal calls for the Department of Transportation to annually set aside $50 million for the network. Half the money is to come from Amendment 1 and the other $25 million would be raised through a $225 fee already imposed when motor vehicles are initially registered, known as the new wheels fee.

Amendment 1 is projected to generate about $741 million next year for land and water conservation, more than $200 million above what lawmakers allocated for such uses in the current year.

The SunTrail network would also be included in the Department of Transportation’s five-year work program.

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