By MELODY JAMESON
Concerned about a fast shuffle again stacking the deck against South County interests, a regional group of community leaders this week is lining up behind a long-promised, now-threatened project.
In a rapidly shifting funding scenario, with various transportation projects being added, pulled and added again on long term to-do lists as planners juggle needs, priorities and possible available monies, the SouthShore Round Table (SSRT) board consisting of community representatives from across the South County region is calling for restored funding of the long-promised South Coast Greenway.
Assembled Thursday for a regularly-scheduled board meeting, the group voted unanimously to assert in writing to the county-level Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) the strong support in multiple South County communities for the several phases of the greenway which quietly dropped off the MPO’s 25-year transportation project funding list. The MPO is an arm of The Planning Commission.
By Friday afternoon, one phase of the greenway plan turned up back on the MPO funding list – a circumstance which altered the SSRT board’s proposed statement to the planners. The board’s position on the greenway project, however, was not wavering early this week as members were reviewing their letter to the MPO.
15 years in the making
Planning for the South Coast Greenway began in the mid-1990s. It is envisioned as a six-segment paved trail to be constructed over a period of years, beginning at the Little Manatee River and proceeding northward, ultimately to link with similar facilities in urban Tampa. Phases I and III, the first a two-mile section from Ruskin’s College Avenue to 19th Avenue and the other a three-mile segment from Big Bend Road to Symmes Road, were to be funded with public monies. Phase II, from 19th Avenue to Big Bend, has been designated for funding by developer Newland Communities, lead builder in the massive planned Waterset community east of U.S. 41 near Apollo Beach.
Estimated costs were $2.5 million for Phase I and $2.25 million for Phase III. Phase IV, from the Little Manatee to College Avenue, as well as Phases V and VI, through Gibsonton and north of the Alafia River, have not been and are not yet funded from any source.
Such trails are designed for recreational use, with the types of recreation consistent with the predominant interests in the communities they serve. The South Coast Greenway was foreseen as a feature for such outdoor enthusiasts as joggers, birders, bicyclists, roller bladers, skateboarders. The greenway also was to connect with a network of bikeways – often a five-foot width of marked-off pavement along the sides of roadways – planned for the Ruskin, Apollo Beach, Riverview areas.
A checkered funding history
Summing up the situation for the SSRT board, Mariella Smith, a Ruskin activist, pointed out that in 2006 both Phases I and III were set for funding through the Community Investment Tax (CIT), a special levy approved by voters to underwrite a number of projects for various communities in the county. This greenway funding was promised and the project maintained as a priority by planners during some 100 public events, she added. And, the first phases of the greenway were in the 25-year county transportation plan – commonly called the 2035 Plan – adopted in December, 2009.
Subsequently, however, the South Coast trail CIT construction funds were transferred to another trail in north Tampa, she said. Then, she noted, the South County trail project was added to those transportation needs to be paid for with a proposed one-penny sales tax increase on the upcoming election ballot – until it was discovered that state law does not allow for sales tax revenues applied to trails.
Recently, Smith told the group, the prospective SouthShore feature disappeared entirely from the MPO list of projects to be funded and built with anticipated monies in the next quarter century. Elimination of the project was made particularly galling by the fact that a very new trail proposed for construction under an improved version of the Selmon Expressway has been added to the proposed funding list, she added.
SSRT board asserts support Asking SSRT board members for a formal show of support for restoring South County greenway funding, Smith emphasized an August 3 public hearing on the issues as critical, adding that if the project is not included for funding now, “we will never get it funded.”
The board unanimously agreed, approving a letter to MPO commissioners asserting opposition by several South County communities to eliminating funding for the trail and stating “It is disappointing we must again fend off delays to the South Coast Greenway while other areas seem to jump our place…” The letter goes on to ask “Do past promises and priority lists claiming our turn was coming mean nothing?”
Other board members also were vocal on the subject. Marcella O’Steen, Balm Civic Association president and active county government watchdog, cautioned “It’s never over until it’s over” and added the trail project might serve as a prime example of the ”shell game” sometimes played at the county level.
Even though the situation changed once again, before the board’s MPO letter could be finalized, with return on Friday of the trail’s phase I to the planning group’s funded projects list, both Smith and SSRT Chairman Don Schings were maintaining this week the importance of keeping up the drum beat.
The proposed greenway is more than simply another recreation site for South County residents, Smith said. As designed, it is expected to become an attraction in the South County’s eco-tourism package, creating a linear parkway between Camp Bayou on the Little Manatee River to Williams Park on the Alafia River through preserved county woodlands while also linking both South County high and middle schools as well as the Hillsborough Community College campus.
There’s also the favorable economic factor, Smith added. Estimates for construction of the first four trail segments originally were pegged at $9 million, she said. Today the estimate, due to reductions in construction and materials costs, is $8 million for six sections, or down to $6 million for five when the segment to be paid for by Newland Communities is subtracted.
What’s more, she said, the greenway has been included in several of the South County community plans, subsequently approved by the state and made part of the county’s comprehensive plan.
Not one elected official making decisions affecting South Hillsborough lives south of S.R. 60, Smith pointed out, “and it’s always more difficult to get an appropriate share of our tax dollars spent in the South County.” Nonetheless, when it comes to the trail projects now, “it’s our turn” and “the line forms to the rear,” she said.
Schings echoed the sentiment, suggesting that one phase of the greenway restored to the funded projects list is not likely to alter the SSRT board’s support for “getting it (the greenway) to fully funded status,” but does indicate a need for close monitoring of rapidly changing county information.
Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson