An effort is afoot to buy a Southwest Florida railroad corridor stretching more than a dozen miles north to south with the potential to one day turn it into multi-use pathways or an express public transit route.
Collier County, Bonita Springs and Estero have been involved in talks with The Trust For Public Land to test the waters on what it would cost to acquire miles of tracks from the railroad that are no longer being used.
The nonprofit is seeking an appraisal for the land that will help local officials decide whether it would be feasible to purchase it, said Trinity Scott, Collier’s transportation planning manager.
In Collier, the rail corridor measures about a mile-and-a-half, from a concrete plant at the east end of Wiggins Pass Road to the county line. If acquired, not only could it potentially be used for bus rapid transit, Scott said, it could also save the county from having to pay the railroad for permission to cross the tracks with a road extension planned in North Naples.
The second phase of a proposed westward extension of Veterans Memorial Boulevard will lead from a new high school west to Old 41 Road and potentially U.S. 41.
Commissioners last week awarded a $10 million design-build contract to a company for the first phase of the road project.
“We need to either determine if we’re going to acquire the right-of-way within Collier County from the railroad or are we going to negotiate a rail crossing as part of our road project,” Scott said.
Negotiating a rail crossing could be pricey for Collier. A cost estimate dating back to March 2019 came in at about $350,000, a county spokeswoman said in an email. If the railroad line becomes active, which seems unlikely, the county would have to pay even more, she added.
Although the rail corridor goes all the way to Desoto County, at least the first part of a potential project would probably go from Alico Road south “where they’re not utilizing the rail at this point,” Scott said.
If the local governments were to acquire the railroad corridor, it could be used for an express bus that would have its own lane and could shuttle people between Lee and Collier while avoiding the traffic of U.S. 41.
“It could be bus rapid transit,” Scott said. “Being able to have the bus run on a corridor that’s not influenced significantly by congestion on the other major roadways.”
She said the corridor could also potentially be used one day for autonomous vehicles, allowing them to move “more efficiently” instead of having them intermingle with regular cars.
Estero and Bonita Springs are very interested in getting a multi-use pathway there, Scott said.
“So kind of a bicycle-pedestrian corridor,” she said. “And then beyond that I think we’re all kind of open-minded about what it might be in the future, and that’s going to be based on whatever the future needs are.”
More than anything, the corridor presents a rare opportunity for local governments.
“Just being able to secure a corridor in the urban area, you know, we don’t have very many opportunities for that,” Scott said.
For now, however, officials are waiting to see what the appraisal says. The cost will likely present the biggest challenge, Scott said.
“It’s no different than dealing with anyone who owns property,” she said. “Many times we may think their property is worth X and they believe it’s Y.”
Her guess is the appraisal should come back “in the next couple weeks.” From there officials will have to determine if moving forward is realistic, Scott said. If it is, the matter could come before Collier commissioners sometime early next year.
Estero and Bonita Springs officials lobbied to prioritize the railway path in the Shared-Use Nonmotorized (SUN) Trail program.
The program, managed by the Florida Department of Transportation, distributes funds to projects expanding multi-use paths separated from vehicle traffic, according to the program’s website.
The 12 miles of track running through Bonita Springs and Estero would become a link in the Gulf Coast Trail stretching from Tampa Bay to Naples. Neither city council has spoken about an express public transit route.
Bonita Springs has $5 million budgeted for a SUN Trail, but more funds would be needed to buy and build on the railroad, Assistant City Manager Matt Feeney said.
The Trust for Public Land works to purchase and preserve land by rallying local governments and community partners for a common goal, said Doug Hattaway, senior project manager. The group facilitated the public purchase of the Naples Zoo in 2004 through a referendum.
In 2018, the nonprofit helped Sarasota County expand the Legacy Trail by purchasing a nine-mile stretch of track from Seminole Gulf Railways. The Fort Myers-based rail company owns the rail corridor in Lee and Collier counties.
A problem plaguing sale of the tracks south of Alico Road is the plethora of government buyers, said Robert Fay, vice president of Seminole Gulf Railways.
“When dealing with the southern end, it gets more complicated with various public entities and local governments,” Fay said. “In Sarasota, we were only dealing with Sarasota County.”
A state-funded feasibility study of a public multi-use path along the railways is underway separate from the appraisal, said Don Scott, executive director of the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization. The county, along with officials from Estero, Bonita Springs and Collier are searching for a firm to perform the study.
“Anything that comes out of (Lee County) connects into Collier, so anything with that corridor impacts them,” Don Scott said.
Funding came from the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails. The Lee County MPO isn’t as involved in the corridor appraisal, although it is interested in the results. State funding to build multi-use paths would open if the tracks were government-owned, Don Scott said.
“The governments are working together to get an appraisal of the property,” said Matt Feeney, Bonita Springs assistant city manager. “It’s the first time we’re really working together on this level.”
Estero Village Manager Steve Sarkozy said the local governments are only in the “research stage.”
“Nothing has moved forward,” he said. “We first want to determine what the cost is before we consider anything else.”