Bonita Estero Rail to Trail closer to reality

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After four years of negotiations, Seminole Gulf Railway has agreed to sell its 14.9-mile Bonita-Estero rail corridor for a public pedestrian and biking trail. Lee County and its municipalities, and Collier County if it chooses, have until March 2026 to come up with the $82 million agreed upon price brokered by the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that works to connect people to outdoor spaces, said Deborah Orton, president of Friends of Bonita Estero Rail to Trail.

The Bonita Estero Rail to Trail – called BERT – would run from just south of the Lee Collier County border to Alico Road through downtown Bonita Springs and Estero ending just north of San Carlos Park at Alico Road. The trail will connect to Lee County’s John Yarborough Trail to the north and the planned Paradise Coast Trail to the south in Collier County. “This isn’t an isolated 15-mile piece of land,” said Doug Hattaway, Southeast Region conservation director at Trust for Public Land. “It’s going to connect to a statewide trail network.” Called a linear park, the trail will The Bonita Estero Rail to Trail will include construction of a 12-foot-wide asphalt path for almost 15 miles, looking similar to paths in Baker Park in Naples. 

 Local governments have 2 years to pay $82M asking price Powered by TECNAVIA create connections through communities for exercise as well as a path for commuting to work and school. Buying a rail line is complicated and turning the line into a trail will take more than the $82 million purchase price. Hattaway was part of the team that negotiated with Seminole Gulf Railway and will continue to work with Friends of BERT and Lee and Collier counties to help them gather the funds to buy the land. Meantime, Trust for Public Land will put its own money up and be the intermediary owner of the property, Hattaway said. Why did negotiations take four years? “Rail corridors are very complicated real estate transactions,” Hattaway said. Federal regulations, leases with rail lines and utilities, fiber optic lines and more lengthen the process. Trust for Public Land inked another deal with Seminole Gulf Railway in Sarasota for The Legacy Trail, a 12.5-mile long, 100-foot-wide CSX corridor that stretches from just south of Clark Road in Sarasota to Center Road in Venice. “What’s nice about a rail to trail, once you remove the rail lines, it’s set up very nicely for a 12-foot-wide asphalt trail. It’s already packed down,” Orton said. “That 15-mile stretch has not been used for 15 years. It is not an abandoned rail line, but it hasn’t been used.” Hattaway said there also will be room for a softer dirt or mulch path along with an asphalt path. Once complete, BERT will become part of the planned 42-mile ConnectLee trail network and, ultimately part of the 400+ mile Florida Gulf Coast Trail. Who will pay the $82 million? “We have to put the dollars together to make this happen by 2026,” Orton said. “We believe that we have identified those funding sources. We believe we can put those together to come up with the $82 million over the next two years. Unless the state Legislature wants to fund the whole thing.”

The nonprofit organization will work with Trust for Public Land to seek federal, state and local funding to buy the land and then ask Florida’s SUN Trail program for money for construction, Orton said. The Trust will likely write some of the grant proposals for the purchase, Hattaway said. “Given that BERT has already been identified as a ‘priority trail’, the State of Florida’s SUN Trail program will likely be providing the funding for the construction,” Orton said. Friends of Bert is scheduled to make a presentation to the Village of Estero City Council on Wednesday to discuss the purchase, the plan for the Lee County Park, and how Estero wants to be involved. Who will maintain the trail? “It would be a county park, so just like John Yarborough trail is maintained by county parks and rec, we except that to be the same for BERT,” Orton said. However, Bonita Springs and Estero may want to be involved, adding benches and maintaining parts of the trail, she said. There has to be a maintenance plan before SUN trails will release money for construction, Orton said. Who can use the trail? The public trail line is within a mile of 11 schools, Orton said. “That represents 10,000 students.” The trail also will bring 70,000 residents within a 10-minute bike ride or walk to the trail, according to an analysis by Trust for Public Land. “It gives us something additional than our beautiful beaches for visitors to come to,” Orton said. “We know if we have this type of trail amenity, that tourists will come too.”