The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization was recently awarded a $10.4 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant. The money will go a long way toward making our roadways safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. There is now work that is required of our local government and community in order to implement those improvements, and there are traps that could hinder us.
In 2011 our collective communities, through the Lee Metropolitan Planning Organization, developed and adopted a bicycle and pedestrian master plan that includes all of our county’s important transportation corridors. Bike/ped conditions along and leading to those corridors were then evaluated and inventoried to identify needs, including major problem areas, access to transit and even minor gaps. In other words, the group sought to answer whether there are adequate accommodations that allow one to get from point-A to point-B safely and efficiently by bike or foot, and if not, what improvement(s) would make that possible? Also, within the plan’s recommendations are three demonstration projects that would have maximum impact when implemented, two of which are the focus of the TIGER grant.
The Tour de Parks Route is a 35-mile loop connecting Lakes Park, Yarbrough Linear Trail Park, Lee County Sports Complex (Hammond Stadium, home of Twins and Miracle baseball), Calusa Nature Center, North Colonial Linear Park, and Jet Blue Park (home of Red Sox baseball). Much of the route is in place, at least the pathway elements, but on-road features, intersection fixes and marking and signing routes are part of the proposed improvements.
University Loop, the other included route, is so named because FGCU is a key destination within it, although not the only popular location that’s part of it. Southwest Florida International Airport, Gulf Coast Town Center and Three Oaks Park are some others. This route is important because it links FGCU to the rest of Lee County, providing students, faculty and staff with alternatives to driving, something that will save both commuters and the school money (FGCU has already spent way too much on parking garages and surface lots). Like Tour de Parks, much of the infrastructure is in place, but there remains plenty of work to be done to make it safe and accessible enough for it to be an attractive option to getting behind the wheel.
The third element of the grant is the Bi- County Connector. It focuses on improving access to and for transit stops that link Lee County to Collier County. Sidewalks and bus-stop shelters along 22 miles of this route are the primary improvements that the grant money is intended to cover — improvements that are sure to attract even more riders to the very popular LinC bus route between counties, as well as LeeTran routes in the south Fort Myers, Estero and Bonita areas.
Because of this grant’s focus on transit, it’s hard to understand how or why service has been cut for the new fiscal year — an action that could potentially reduce available TIGER funds. Besides winning awards for its performance, LeeTran set a record for ridership, logging more than 4 million trips in the last fiscal year, equating to an 8.6 percent increase from the prior year and a 35 percent increase over the past three years. That’s impressive. Any possible loss of TIGER grant money not included, the budget reduction that was approved by Lee County commissioners saved a whopping $117,000 but cost us more than $400,000 in lost grant money and fare revenue, put four bus drivers out of work, and will adversely affect thousands of transit users when the service cutbacks go into effect in November (some who may also lose their jobs because of the cuts). Pretty bad decision, no matter how it was justified.
The bottom line for Lee County residents and visitors is that there will be more options for getting around by bike, on foot, and by transit, whether out of necessity or for recreational fitness. Access to Cape Coral (which will soon have 90 miles of connected routes, thanks to a public-private partnership), Lehigh, and the beaches of Sanibel and North Fort Myers will be easier and safer. Even parts of the county where the improvements will not be made benefit because any funds that may have been available to complete our Bike/Ped Master Plan demonstration projects, which are a high priority, are now available for other needs that have also been identified in the plan.
Finally, for us to actually make this happen, the same level of collaboration and cooperation as went into the three-attempt application process must also occur in the implementation stage. We’ve got less than a year to have all of the construction plans and contracts in place, then two more years to complete the work. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it deal, so everyone needs to be on the same page and working together. That also means bringing LeeTran service levels back to and even better than before the recent cuts. We also need to ensure that LinC, our bi-county bus route, continues to operate after the grant funding that’s making it possible now runs its course. FGCU, which this year backed out of funding its share of the route that serves it, must also come back to the table and embrace transit for the sake of its own bottom line and to help its students and staff save money as well. For much more on the TIGER grant, check out BikeWalkLee’s blog as well as Lee MPO’s website.
Until next time, I’ll look for you on the roads and trails.
— Dan Moser is CyclingSavvy instructor/ trainer and program director for Florida Bicycle Association who cycles, runs and walks regularly for transportation, recreation and fitness. He may be contacted at email@example.com and (239) 334- 6417.