A little less than a year ago, we reported that Florida would be funding construction of a continuous pedestrian trail across the state known as the Coast to Coast Connector. This year, there is more good news for pedestrians and bicyclists. An additional $25 million in annual funding has been approved to construct and maintain a network of regional trails. Those regional trails, referred to as the SunTrail system, will be part of Florida’s larger system of greenways and trails to help prevent pedestrian and bicycle accidents.

The new law defines SunTrails as paved trails which are physically separated from car traffic. They will be designed to go to and from places of public interest, such as state parks, beaches, and conservation areas. SunTrails are not part of the Coast to Coast connector, but some will join existing trails. This will continue the process of creating a larger trail network instead of a patchwork of isolated routes.

The physical separation from car traffic will be a key feature of the SunTrail system. As this blog has discussed many times, Florida is still a notoriously unsafe place for pedestrians and bicycle riders. Many people intimidated by traffic will find trails more inviting than streets with bike lanes.

Dedicated pedestrian trails also tend to have less debris, such as broken glass and trash, than regular multi-use roads. Again, this will make them more appealing to people concerned about flat tires and obstructions.

In the meantime, we are seeing considerable progress in our area. We recently opened a pedestrian trail along the Courtney Campbell Causeway, and will soon open a new segment of the Upper Tampa Bay Trail in north Hillsborough County. The Causeway trail runs all the way from Tampa to Clearwater, while the Upper Tampa Bay Trail segment will run north from Van Dyke Road and connect to the 40-mile Suncoast Trail at Lutz Lake Fern Road.

Andy Gardiner, the President of the Florida Senate, deserves credit for helping to make SunTrails a reality. As many people have heard, this year’s legislative session almost ended in disaster after the regular session was aborted without a budget. Both houses of the legislature had to reconvene in a special session to hammer out a budget deal. Gardiner and others had their hands full addressing multiple budget priorities such as health care funding and education in that session.

There was plenty of acrimony between both houses and Governor Scott before a budget finally emerged. In fact, bad blood is still lingering over Scott’s veto of certain budget items, with some lawmakers in his own party – including Gardiner – suggesting petty retaliation and score-settling.

Under those conditions, it was quite a feat for Gardiner to attain a significant and secure increase in funding for Florida trails. It may have helped that Gardiner, an Orlando area Republican, happens to be a cyclist and fitness enthusiast himself.

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