Time to focus on Manatee County's weak bike, pedestrian, trail system

January 3, 2014 

The board of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization adopted a resolution to promote safe bicycle, pedestrian and trail assets and to come up with ideas and recommendations for projects. That resolution came in October 2011.

Finally, last month consultants delivered a concrete blueprint for improving the sadly lacking system of amenities in high demand with residents. The 211-page "Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Master Plan," which the MPO board approved in December, holds hope for greater connectivity and safer routes.

The exhaustive study collected and analyzed a massive amount of data on existing and planned bicycle, pedestrian and multiuse trails, transit networks, activity and employment centers, parks and more -- all from 17 different governing agencies in the two-county region. Gaps in the infrastructure system were identified, totaling 146. The study also ranks gaps according to the number and severity of crashes.

The impressive research states that this represents the first standalone MPO planning document completely dedicated to establishing a regional vision for bicycle, pedestrian and trail facilities.

The federally funded, $170,000 study is an encouraging sign about the development of future amenities. Plus, additional assets hold the potential to boost tourism and economic development as visitors find the region a friendlier place for their recreational pursuits and a more desirable place in which to live and work.

The master plan's research team -- from Jacobs Engineering of Tampa and led by Edward "Ned" Baier -- recommended three regional multi-use trails uppermost, with two highly attractive routes in Manatee County.

One runs from Bayshore Gardens at El Conquistador to Bradenton Beach. El Conquistador Parkway already holds a bicycle lane and sidewalk between 34th Street West and 53rd Avenue West and has become a popular spot for recreation.

The other one would link downtown Bradenton to Manatee Beach. A major portion of that route -- Manatee Avenue west of 75th Street all the way to Holmes Beach -- offers a wide sidewalk also a favorite with cyclists and joggers.

But bicyclists take unreasonable risks riding down a long stretch of Manatee Avenue West, just one of many dangerous roadways too narrow to safely accommodate recreation enthusiasts and a bicycle lane. The master plan points out that bicycle lanes on parallel, less traveled street should be considered in lieu of lands on primary roads, and that will likely occur with Manatee Avenue West.

The top three recommended bicyclist projects in Manatee County are 15th Street East from the Braden River to Cortez Road; 26th Street West from Cortez Road to Florida Boulevard; and Manatee Avenue West from 12th Street to 75th Street West.

The master plan also identifies funding sources from local, state and federal agencies as well as private and nonprofit sources, a critical component with local governments still stretched thin by the impacts of the recession.

Lakewood Ranch is a glowing example of a commitment to pedestrian and bicycle amenities with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. having developed 150 miles of interconnected trails and sidewalks. The company found that those amenities ranked No. 1 in surveys of visitors touring model homes.

Now it's time to focus on community needs elsewhere and begin to fill in the gaps. We encourage the MPO to push the project forward, beginning Monday at the organization's next meeting. And we urge local governments to start the development process.

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