Dumbing down before wising up


by Herb Hiller, Southeast Region Program Consultant

The first budget-cutting whack at Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails is like programming Bizet and Tchaikovsky to pull listeners into the concert hall. Both moves are part of dumbing down when times get tough, as they are now.

At the start of the current 60-day session of the Florida Legislature, easy fixers right away focused on saving almost a million dollars by firing OGT staff and merging responsibilities for trails with parks and recreation. The public will never notice the difference, they promise. Trails are precisely recreation. Aren’t they often described as linear parks?

The whackers first unsheathed their blunt instruments a year ago only months after the non-profit American Trails at its 2008 conference awarded Florida charter honors as best trails state in America. The ink was hardly dry on the proclamation when the axes fell, only to be stopped short of their kill by the leadership of Florida Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Ken Bryan, who rounded up thousands of OGT-supportive emails that carried the day.

But let’s say that trails do supply something more than outdoor leisure. What might that be?

For many of us in the trails movement, multi-use trails supply answers to big problems of transportation, fitness and health. Those of us who champion paved multi-use trails respond chiefly to getting people out of cars, those who could surely get to and from work and who might more often than not handle shopping and socializing by getting on a bike instead of into a car.

I always like to remind people that car drivers and cyclists aren’t “them” and “us.” How many cyclists do you know who don’t also own one or two cars? Even many non-cycling car drivers have bikes in their garage though typically flat-tired and rusting. No; cyclists and car drivers are largely one and the same, except that cyclists know they have a choice and exercise it.

Then, we can argue that it’s really car drivers who call for trails, so that when we leave our cars at home we can get where we’re going safely on two wheels.

Yet if our intelligence tells us that trails can be a critical factor in conserving environment and health and in controlling runaway transportation dollars, how come we’re not building trails everyplace they’d pay off with huge savings and additional benefits?

As all of us in the trails movement know, the case hasn’t yet been made effectively enough. Despite its avowed purpose to connect cities along a 3,000-mile urban path, the East Coast Greenway since its launch in 1992 is so far less than a quarter way complete (albeit 30 percent in Florida).

Our Florida showing already in good part results from OGT, and thanks to OGT will ramp up more quickly in the years ahead. OGT operates in advocacy mode. No surprise that it’s working closely with advocates and the private sector to help organize the game-changing launch of the trails website that the state tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida, plans for October. No surprise that it was the Florida Greenways and Trails Council that adopted a resolution calling for a new priority for long-distance destination trails – a move that directs the actions of OGT.

No surprise that OGT last fall helped lead the call for an analysis of how trails benefit local economies, a task that the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council adopted the same March week that the Legislature cranked up its mischief.

At the same time that some legislators are willing to whack trails, other Florida moves call for a permanent bike-ped advocacy group within the Florida DOT, while other plans call for new commuter rail systems in populous southeast Florida and around metro Orlando that will integrate trails into the transportation mix.

No state does recreation and parks better than Florida. Park managers around America have twice voted Florida parks #1 in the nation. That will happen again, the same as will Florida’s top national ranking among trail states. That is, as long as OGT keeps doing its work. And maybe OGT will. A week after this session’s first whack, the whacker sheathed his weapon.

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