Imagine a linear park and greenway that extends from the Lee/Collier County border, all the way north to the Lee/Charlotte County border. We at Friends of Bonita Estero Rail Trail call that effort…ConnectLee! While we advocate for BERT, we know our 14.9-mile linear park and trail is part of a larger trail network that will span Lee County. Beyond Lee County, the Florida Gulf Coast Trail, part of the Florida SUN Trail Network, will connect Tampa to Naples: a 336-mile multi-use trail. But first, let’s dive into a discussion about Lee County.
Ron Gogoi, AICP, Transportation Planning Administrator for the Lee MPO agreed to speak with us. First about how BERT will connect to John Yarbrough trail, then taking it farther to planning and construction of multi-use trails in Fort Myers; and farther north. Ron lays out, in detail, the plans, status and upcoming construction of these trails.
- At a high level, how do MPO and local government Plans align with, or complement, Friends of BERT’s vision of ConnectLee? How do these Plans sync up with Florida’s SUN Trail Network and the Trust for Public Lands vision for the Florida Gulf Coast Trail?
The Lee MPO plans support a regional and statewide system of bike facilities through Lee County. This includes the Florida SUN Trail Network and a primarily north south alignment of the SUN Trail Network through the urban areas in Lee County which is part of the Florida Gulf Coast Trail. This regional trail connects 7 counties from Pinellas County in the north to Collier County in the south. The two trail systems are envisioned as the spine through Lee County providing connectivity to local trails and pathways, and area attractions. The alignment of the SUN Trail Network and the Florida Gulf Coast Trail will connect our communities to the north and south, and to the east and west, and will support Friends of BERT’s vision of ConnectLee to engage communities and promoting active transportation and healthy living in Lee County.
Local government plans such as the City of Fort Myers Midtown Plan recognize the value and importance of the Florida Gulf Coast Trail and they are considering the route in their plans through Midtown. The John Yarbrough Linear Park and its proposed extension to central Fort Myers is along the Florida Gulf Coast Trail. The City’s Hendry Street Pedestrian Mall concept complements the efforts to run the SUN Trail Network and the Gulf Coast Trail through Downtown and Midtown. The city and the Lee County BOCC both support MPO’s planned Caloosahatchee Downtown Multimodal Alternative Study that will evaluate alternative options for a preferred alternative for the Gulf Coast Trail that does not bypass the Downtown River District and the planned North Fort Myers Town Center Plan.
- How does the Bonita Estero Rail Trail fit into MPO plans for completing the Florida Sun Trail Network and the Gulf Coast Trail in Lee County?
The Seminole Gulf Rail corridor, south of Alico Road, is along the SUN Trail Network and the Gulf Coast Trail in South Lee County. These trail systems are identified in the MPO’s Transportation Plan. It is an MPO priority to address the gap in the SUN Trail Network between Alico Road and Bonita Springs with a safe and stress-free pathway that connects to the John Yarbrough Linear Park in the north and Collier County’s Paradise Trail in the south.
A trail option along the rail corridor is also identified in the Lee County Rail Feasibility Study that we completed in 2013. We also have overwhelming public support for the rails to trail option in the recently completed BERT Feasibility Study.
- Once completed, will BERT connect with John Yarbrough Linear Park?
Yes, BERT will connect to John Yarbrough Linear Park and its proposed extension to Central Fort Myers. Both BERT and John Yarbrough Linear Park are along the Lee County SUN Trail Network and the Florida Gulf Coast Trail.
- Without getting into the details of each project, describe the current state of the various initiatives to complete the SUN Trail Network and the Gulf Coast Trail that all go to support the ConnectLee slogan?
A construction project to extend John Yarbrough Linear Park from Colonial Boulevard to Hanson Street may happen as early as FY 2024. The City of Fort Myers is developing the Midtown Master Plan which will guide design phases to support a work play urban density. There is a study that will commence later this year that will look into the viability of converting Hendry Street to a pedestrian mall. We also have a design/build project under way that will add an 8’ wide shared use path along the Caloosahatchee Bridge. All three projects will help in finalizing the Gulf Coast Trail alignment through Downtown Fort Myers and North Fort Myers. Along the same lines the MPO is trying to secure funds to conduct the Caloosahatchee Downtown Multimodal Alternative Study. Then in North Fort Myers and NW Cape, we have several projects along the Gulf Coast Trail alignment. They include improvements to Littleton Road this year from US 41 to Kismet Parkway that will add 8’ shared use paths and bike lanes, design of the Kismet Parkway Shared Use Path Phase III which is under way, and Construction of Phase II which is funded in FY 2025. Then we have the Design of the Burnt Store widening from Kismet Parkway to Charlotte County Line which is funded in FY 2024. The PD&E study associated with this project is under way and calls for 10’ shared use paths and bike lanes. Finally, in south Lee County, we have the design of the Old 41 widening from US 41 in Collier County to Bonita Beach Road funded in FY 2027 that calls for 10’ wide shared use path, and bike lanes. The proposed Old 41 shared use path will connect with BERT.
- What are some of the biggest obstacles facing the MPO in implementing the Florida Gulf Coast Trail in Lee County and which parts of the trail are the farthest along?
The biggest obstacles are always funding, and we are still trying to figure out the best alignment to run the trail in certain areas of Lee County. I would say the trail segments in Cape Coral and North Fort Myers are doing quite well. In South Fort Myers we have managed to get most of the funding for the John Yarbrough Linear Park extension that together with the existing linear park and the Michael G. Rippe Parkway Shared Use Path will give us approximately 10 miles of continuous trail.
- What is your personal opinion on how ConnectLee facilitates the development of the greater Florida Gulf Coast Trail and how will that benefit Lee County?
Florida Gulf Coast Trail is a regional trail that connects 7 counties in Southwest and West Central Florida. It has the potential to increase property values adjacent to the trail and bring in economic benefits to retail establishments serving users of this trail. Some communities like downtown Bonita Springs have the potential to become trail towns. I would think the ConnectLee goal to complete this regional trail will unite communities in Lee County as I believe our residents share a passion for more active transportation, clean air, and a healthy lifestyle. I also think the trail will benefit all modes as you may see people leaving their cars at home and walking or biking to work, shop and recreate.
- How can Friends of BERT’s and its vision of ConnectLee help the MPO in developing the SUN Trail Network and the Florida Gulf Coast Trail in Lee County?
Advocacy, lobbying, turning out volunteers, and drumming up support are important for completing the two trail systems in Lee County. The MPO is not set up to do that. So, Friends of BERT and its vison of ConnectLee will be able to do all that and unite communities.