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Future of Bonita Springs to Estero rail-to-trail project is unclear

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Mike Braun
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WGCU
Bonita Springs residents were hoping to get a resolution last week for a 14-mile linear park project that would connect the city to Florida’s statewide network of multi-use trails. But opposition to the project from some residents and pending studies must be resolved first. Residents of The Vines, a community split by the existing Seminole Gulf Railway tracks that would be used as the trail, urged that the trail ends at Estero Parkway, shown here.

The future of Bonita Springs rail-trail project is unclear

Bonita Springs residents were hoping for a resolution last week for a recreational trail that would replace the Seminole Gulf Railway (SGLR) from Bonita Springs to Estero. However, one Estero neighborhood opposes the plans — the tracks in question run right through its gated community.

At the January 18 city council meeting, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) presented plans for covering the unused railway of the SGLR that would connect the city to Florida’s statewide network of multi-use trails. MPO commissioned the research for the 14-mile linear park project.

The rail-trail — called the Bonita Estero Rail Trail — would start at Bonita Beach Road, go north and end at Alico Road, tying into the Fort Myers John Yarbrough Linear Park.

The Vines and Estero Country Club is a 440-home private development on Vintage Parkway. One mile of the railway bisects its golf course from north to south, leaving nine holes on each side. It also intersects with two vehicle crossings, one for cars and one for golf carts.

Homeowners at The Vines proposed a 12-mile trail Wednesday that would begin at Bonita Beach Road and stop at Estero Parkway, just before the property.

Vines resident Bruce Ackerman said entering The Vines is unnecessary because of the sidewalks along Estero and Three Oaks parkways that would be accessible from the trail. Ackerman and his wife, Diana, have been living at The Vines for almost seven years.

“They were already built with taxpayer dollars, and they will afford the more serious biker an extended biking experience,” Ackerman said. “And if some say those bike paths are not safe enough, then spend far less dollars than buying the entire railroad and make them safer. They’re already there.”

Diana Ackerman was opposed due to safety concerns for the path users, though she still supports other alternatives.

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Braun, Michael
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“The number of vehicles, golf carts, walkers, bikers, et cetera, that would cross our main areas of concerns are in the hundreds of thousands,” she said. “There is not a shadow of a doubt that there will be collisions, injuries and altercations.”

She was also concerned about access to the grounds and the safety of the residents.

“This trail would literally be feet from our fairways, which provides easy access to the epicenter of our community, where we have our bathrooms, water stations, snack areas, clubhouse, et cetera,” she said. “It would put our residents in precarious interactions [with] the…users that can easily, readily leave our path in our gated community.”

“This path through our community takes away our security and leaves us vulnerable and open to everyone 24/7,” resident Tom Rubbelke said. “Owners would be crossing this proposed path at a minimum of twice daily...presenting multiple opportunities for dangerous collisions.”

“Please consider the Golden Rule and do not allow in our neighborhood that which you would not want in the middle of your own neighborhood,” Rubbelke said.

Ron Gogoi is the transportation planning administrator for MPO. Gogoi, who did not speak at the meeting, said fencing around the trail would prevent pedestrians from accessing the community.

“And we can provide security gates where the trail enters the property north and south,” Gogoi said. “We can also do something like in some of these parks…between dawn and dusk, these state, county or local parks are closed.”

Residents could utilize the trail through private gates. For added security, solar lights and cameras could be installed. Another option was to build overpasses at the vehicle crossings.

One concern was golf balls that may hit path users. Gogoi proposed netting over the fencing to keep people safe.

At the meeting, Diana Ackerman addressed this option.

“This community is our home. This is not a public golfing range,” she said. “This would cause disruption to our lives, would be aesthetically detrimental and would negatively affect our home values.”

A total of 2,344 residents responded to MPO’s survey on the proposed alternatives. The study concluded with 1,347 supporters for a rail-trail option and 850 supporters of aligning the trail with existing roadway instead. The full city council meeting packet can be found on the City of Bonita Springs website and presents additional alternatives.

Deborah Orton, the president and co-founder of Friends of Bonita Estero Rail Trail (BERT), was also present at the meeting. Friends of BERT is a citizen-run group of just over 1600 members who are advocates of the rail-trail project. The organization was launched in September of last year.

Orton started the organization because of her love of walking and bicycling and her desire to create a safe environment to do so.

“Please view this project as an investment, an investment with excellent return, an investment in the future of Bonita Springs and, ultimately, an investment in Southwest Florida,” Orton said.

In a later interview, Orton said that what The Vines is proposing could be a real risk to the project.

“We are counting on the FDOT…SUN Trails program,” she said. “We’re counting on them granting the money to build the trail. I mean, it’s millions and millions of dollars that is on the line.”

“If the Florida SUN Trails program got wind that there was a resolution to end it at Estero Parkway, they might take us off as a priority trail,” she added. “You don’t want to do things during a sensitive negotiation time to hamstring the negotiations and have the parties leave the table.”

Orton said that residents of The Vines have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.

“We get it…but don’t hamstring the rest of the county from at least moving forward with the engineering phase of this so that we can find out an engineering method to solve their concerns,” she said.

SGLR runs behind Orton’s community in Bonita Springs. She and her husband moved there three years ago from a community that had a rail-trial. According to Orton, people camp out around the rail line, and ATVs drive through it and end up in her neighborhood, tearing it up. The community often calls the sheriff.

“It will have a trail. It will have people out there using it and actually improving the security of our neighborhood once it’s in,” she said.

The first Florida rail-trail was built in Tallahassee in 1988, the St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail. There are currently 66 Rails-to-Trails projects completed and 36 underway. When completed, the Florida SUN Trail network of paved trail corridors will cover 1298 miles.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nationwide nonprofit that advocates for the transformation of unused rail corridors into trails, connecting communities across the country.

Orton said that the council received 341 emails from supporters. Among them was Deb Schold.

“We do a lot of biking in Bonita Bay because of all…the trails but when we get out to 41 it is a knuckle biter at the lights as the cars are always flying by,” Schold wrote. “I worry about someone texting and not seeing us on our bikes so we try and ferret out the less trafficked areas for biking.”

Resident Lauren Rogers said the trail would be beneficial after the destruction Hurricane Ian left. “We need a way to continue to attract people to this area,” she wrote.

John Norsetter said he has been hit by a car while bicycling on Coconut Road.

“I now confine my cycling almost exclusively to boring residential streets with frequent stop signs,” Norsetter wrote. “I have traveled extensively throughout the United States, and our area of Florida is one of the least bike-friendly areas I have seen.”

Last year, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported 17,002 bicycle and pedestrian accidents in Florida with 956 fatalities. Of those, Lee County accounted for 633 accidents and 42 fatalities.

Though the Florida Department of Transportation funds the Florida SUN Trail construction through vehicle tag renewals, the purchase of the railway is not part of that funding. That’s where Trust for Public Land (TPL) comes in.

TPL, a nonprofit conservation organization that specializes in trails and parks, is currently in negotiations with SGLR to buy the rail line. TPL’s goal is to complete the Florida Gulf Coast Trail, a 336-mile-long corridor of trails that will run from Tampa to Naples once it is done.

The Bonita Springs-Estero corridor was last appraised at $70 million in 2020. But Gogoi said the rail line was not happy with that appraisal, which has prolonged negotiations.

TPL estimates construction costs to be $28.5 million for the Bonita Springs corridor and $27.5 million for the Estero corridor.

Rick Steinmeyer, the mayor of Bonita Springs, said he did not want Bonita Springs residents paying for the project.

“I’m not going to borrow any money,” Steinmeyer said. “That’s not good for the taxpayer. I don’t care what you’re doing.”

With the rail line still not purchased and MPO’s feasibility study projected to be completed and presented to the MPO board in March, the decisions about the trail are still uncertain.

Steinmeyer concluded the meeting by showing his support.

“God, I wish it was built and running today,” he said. “Thank you, folks. You’re going to get your trail eventually.”

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. . The reporter can be reached at gwendolyn.salata@yahoo.com