Make mobility equitable: Connected trails can help

 PHOTO COURTESY MAGGIE ARDITO 

WORK IN PROGRESS — Jim and Marguerite “Maggie” Ardito ride the unfinished “DeBary gap” section of the Spring-to-Spring Trail. Finishing the job of connecting Volusia County’s trails, and building trails designed for commuters, will create safer passage for those using alternative transportation, and extend access to more people, Maggie Ardito said. Her organization, the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance, advocates the continued use of ECHO funds for trails.

Here in Volusia County, ECHO stands for “environment, culture, history and heritage, and outdoor recreation.” We proved that we share these values when more than 70 percent of us voted to extend the ECHO program for another 20 years. 

One topic touches every one of these values: trails and walkable and bikeable green public spaces. Trails not only get people outdoors for recreation; they instill deep connection to and appreciation for environment, history and culture. 

The St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop is a 260- mile mostly state-funded top-priority trail. Nearly half of it runs through Volusia County. The other top-priority trail, the Coast-to-Coast, is also in Volusia. 

Neither of these state trails would exist without ECHO. These trails won the highly competitive contest for state funding because of Volusia’s proven vision and commitment to trails. 

The Spring-to-Spring Trail and the East Central Regional Rail Trail, although incomplete, swayed the decision for state funding and now form an integral part of the two state SUN Trails. 

Every trail in Volusia County, including these, owes its existence to ECHO. 

These state and regional trails improve our quality of life along every dimension: health and wellness, environment, safety, equity, economy and strong community. 

But we have a long way to go before our trails reach their full potential. Large critical gaps remain in East and West Volusia. In West Volusia, the most critical remaining gap is in the Spring-to-Spring Trail between Lake Beresford Park and Minnesota Avenue. 

This gap not only prevents safe cycling between DeLeon Springs State Park and Blue Spring State Park, it also prevents safe access to the trail from DeLand. 

Due to limitations on state funding for trails, it falls to the county to complete this 3.5-mile section — and the county relies on ECHO. 

Once the Beresford gap is complete, we will have a 61-mile trail from DeLeon Springs to Edgewater, connecting DeLeon Springs and Blue Spring state parks, Gemini Springs and Green Springs county parks, and many other natural and historic attractions that will attract trail lovers from near and far. 

The Volusia portion of the Loop is already gaining fame as one of the most scenic trails in America. When complete, it will become a magnet for national and international cycle-tourism that will boost our economy. 

These trails will continue to improve quality of life for residents and will bring the best kind of tourists: affluent, educated, quiet and environmentally conscious. 

Georgia Turner, executive director of Visit West Volusia, has this to say about our trails: “Being the epicenter of two major trail systems is a tourism dream! Trail information is already one of the most requested at the Visitor Center in DeLand. It will be even more important when the trails are completed.” 

We also need regional connector trails. There is no safe connection from Downtown DeLand to the Loop or to the future DeLand SunRail Station and beyond to Stetson’s Aquatic Center on Lake Beresford. 

It’s up to the county and cities to create these connector routes. DeLand hopes to revitalize the Spring Hill area through CRA funding, but revitalization can have lasting impact only when people are out walking, cycling and socializing in local streets. 

Voorhis Avenue can become part of this important trail network for both transportation and recreation and, in doing so, can build vital social and economic connections. 

Connected state and regional trails and bikeways can form a vital link in cycling or multi-modal commuting. The SunRail commuter line and Votran buses accept bicycles. What’s needed for multi-modal commuting are safe routes to the stations and stops. 

Mobility options are especially important for people who are faced with limitations related to poverty, disabilities or aging. ECHO grants are part of the solution to make active, equitable mobility a reality. 

The St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance (River2SeaLoop.Org) supports the continued trails set-aside of $1 million per year of ECHO funds, so we can complete the Loop and continue developing our world-class trail system. 

— Ardito is president of the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance.