MANATEE -- A team led by one of the state's most distinguished planners has completed an exhaustive, $170,000 overview of Manatee and Sarasota counties' bicycle, pedestrian and trails amenities.
The 211-page document, called the "Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Master Plan," is designed to provide a blueprint for the future to help encourage safer, better-connected, non-motorized transportation alternatives.
The primary criteria for the master plan, paid for with federal funds, was safety and connectivity, said Edward "Ned Baier, who led the team that researched and wrote the master plan over the past 18 months.
"It's becoming a standard feature for development," said Baier. "People want to be able to walk and ride their bikes safely. Those are amenities I think the entire community is embracing, including the development community."
The plan should help the two counties choose the most important construction projects and snag money for pedestrian, bike and trail improvements, he said.
The research team recommended three regional multi-use trails across the two-county area as top priorities: In Sarasota County, The Legacy Trail Corridor, from S.R.
780 to Palmer Ranch Parkway; and in Manatee County, the Bradenton Riverwalk-Anna Maria Island Trail, from downtown Bradenton to Manatee Beach, and the El Conquistador-Cortez Trail, from Bayshore Gardens at El Conquistador to Bradenton Beach.
"This is a first," Baier said, noting that the regional transportation planning agency had for the first time adopted a master plan that incorporates plans from local jurisdictions and the state government, and puts all of the data in one place.
"It's important because the plan not only provides a long-term vision for where bicycle and pedestrian improvements are needed, but are prioritized in a way the MPO board and other local and state governments can use it as they allocate money for projects," he said.
The plan will help officials qualify for state and federal money, and is a way to show how local government plans fit into the overall picture, so everyone can see at a glance what improvements are needed, he said.
The design team
Baier is a bicycle enthusiast, who typically rides 50 miles a week on his bike, and is an avid walker.
"It's nice to continue advancing the cause for better facilities for biking and walking," he said. "I was honored to be part of this process, and kudos the community. They have wanted to undertake this project for many years, and they finally did it."
In 1988, Baier led development of the first phase of the Pinellas Trail, a former rail corridor that has been converted to a 50-mile linear park for bike, skate and pedestrian use in the St. Petersburg area.
It was among the first of its kind in Florida and now attracts more than 840,000 users annually.
Earlier this month, Baier addressed the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, which unanimously approved the master plan authored by his team from Jacobs Engineering, of Tampa.
There's also a recognition that, in Sarasota-Manatee, which is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, it's important to connect places like the beaches or the new rowing center at Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park with bike- and pedestrian-friendly options, Baier said.
"The public has concluded they want transportation alternatives to simply getting in their car and driving to work or play," said Mike Howe, the executive director of the MPO, which is a regional transportation planning agency.
"They want some alternatives, and the Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Master Plan provides that, not only from a mobility standpoint, but from a recreational one as well," he said. "It enhances the community, makes it more vibrant and connected, so I think those are the positive attributes to having a strong bicycle and pedestrian and trails system in your community."
Encouraging bicycle use can also extend the reach of transit systems, since bus riders can take their bikes with them, said David Hutchinson, the MPO's planning manager.
Among the plan's key points was its conclusion that communities embracing bicycle- and pedestrian-based tourism can expect economic benefits, such as more vacationers who enjoy safe trails and greenways.
That was a truism confirmed by Scott Daniels, who worked with Baier on the development of the Pinellas Trail from 1988-90 and now is vice-president of Pinellas Trails, Inc., an all-volunteer support group for the trail.
"I happen to be a residential Realtor, so I can honestly tell you that 25 years ago, having an abandoned railroad corridor running through your county, and now having an internationally-famous linear park, has certainly made a drastic difference to homes adjacent to the trail," Daniels said. "Trails have now come up to the same level as golf courses in the level of interest."
Downtown businesses along the trail in St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs "would certainly attest having the Pinellas Trail in its capacity" is a great advantage, Daniels said.
Baiers' efficient planning team "gave us a great start," he said.
Of all the fancy amenities available at East Manatee's Lakewood Ranch, the most popular are inevitably sidewalks, jogging and bicycling trails, according to Jimmy Stewart, vice president of sales for LWR Communities LLC, the residential arm of developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc.
Surveys of visitors touring model homes and at the company's information center confirm that 82.4 percent rank sidewalks, jogging and bicycling trails "very important," said Stewart.
Pedestrian and bike amenities ranked No. 1 consistently when matched against other possibilities, such as club houses, tennis courts, swimming pools, golf courses, fitness facilities, and shopping and dining, he said.
And with 150 miles of interconnected trails and sidewalks -- complete with bridges and shell paths, gazebos and butterfly gardens -- the company even won a national award honoring the excellence of its trail system.
"Of course, we always try to plan trails because, again, we see how the importance ranks with our buyers, and it works in our plan," said Stewart. "It relates back to the core values of the company in being good stewards of the land."
Building safe trails
Baiers' most recent effort addressing the needs of the Manatee-Sarasota region included traffic crash data and survey results to pinpoint the worst conditions in each county for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Among Manatee County's worst corridors were Cortez Road, west of U.S. 41; State Road 64 from Manatee Memorial Hospital to Interstate 75; and S.R. 64 from Manatee Memorial Hospital to Anna Maria Island, according to the plan. Among Manatee's worst intersections were University Parkway and Market Street; U.S. 301 and State Road 70; and Manatee Avenue and Gulf Drive North, the plan said.
The areas with the greatest need for bicycle and pedestrian facilities in relation to transit were in downtown Bradenton and downtown Sarasota, two spots with relatively high levels of transit service.
Downtown Bradenton also had the least overall connectivity between schools, recreation, transit and economic development facilities, researchers found.
The plan identified 146 infrastructure "gaps" in the two-county study area, which covered approximately 1,322 square miles and 800,000 acres.
The plan ranked spots that need future infrastructure work, based upon what researchers considered the most urgent in terms of connectivity and safety.
Topping the list of pedestrian projects was 44th Avenue West/Cortez Road West, from Fifth Street West to 301 Boulevard West; No. 2 was Ninth Street West, from 44th Avenue West/South Tamiami Trail to U.S. 301 Boulevard West; and No. 3 was 15th Street East/301 Boulevard East from 53rd Avenue East to 63rd Avenue East.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.