Weeds and plants obscure the small brown “Trans-Florida Central Railroad” sign on 102nd Terrace from view, so nature-lovers and hiking enthusiasts might not see it. Nor might they realize the historical significance of the quiet, tree-covered trail just steps away from screams of playing children at the North County Aquatic Center and adjacent ball field.
But within the next couple of years, as plans continue to further develop the former railroad tracks into a walking and biking trail between Fellsmere and Sebastian, Indian River County transportation officials hope to attract attention to the trail. Expansion of the trail that parallels County Road 512 west of the North County Aquatic Center should begin in January, with state transportation staff working on designs to work the trail west across Interstate 95.
The project is one of almost 50 trails statewide using abandoned railroad tracks as nature paths. The North County project — a joint effort among the Indian River Metropolitan Planning Organization, Sebastian, Fellsmere and Florida Department of Transportation — eventually will follow the former route of the Trans-Florida Railroad, which transported people, pineapples and muck along the east coast in the 1940s. It includes a $3.8 million pedestrian and bicyclist walkway across I-95 and a trail between Fellsmere’s Trailhead Preserve, just west of I-95, and North County Regional Park near Sebastian.
Running clubs and high school students already use the east portion of the trail, which winds behind the Burger King on C.R. 512, past a historic cemetery east through the woods near the Sebastian River and on to a paved sidewalk that stretches to U.S. 1, said Indian River County Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Phil Matson.
Using existing an railroad route makes creating the trail easier than if planners had to start from scratch, Matson said. Part of the trail in the North County, for example, crosses swampland. But the berm created for the railroad years ago eliminates any need to elevate the trail, he said.
“This is almost made for us,” Matson said.
Matson said the county wants to improve signs along the existing trail to create more awareness and use of the existing trail. Expanded parking areas would help provide access to hikers, he said. But all this takes money, which isn’t always available, he said.
Finding ready-made, abandoned tracks to develop into trails isn’t simple, either. Matson said communities aren’t always receptive to a trail — and hikers — crossing near their backyards. Developers also can be reluctant to give up land for trails, which is why county and Fellsmere staff are mapping out the trail now, before the land around it is built out, he said.
“Once it’s built out, you can never build another trail. Because the developers will have spoken (with development),” Matson said.
Convincing railroads with active lines to allow trails adjacent to their tracks in their rights of way isn’t any easier, Treasure Coast transportation planners said.
Plans for the East Coast Greenway, a trail from Maine to Key West, in 2010 called for pathways adjacent to the railroad through the Savannahs Preserve in St. Lucie County, but an analysis showed the concept was too difficult to complete, said Ed DeFini, bicycle/pedestrian program manager for the St. Lucie Transportation Planning Organization.
There wasn’t enough right of way, and the project didn’t get approval from Florida East Coast Railroad, DeFini said.
Ken Bryan, Rails-To-Trails Conservancy Florida director, said he approached All Aboard Florida to allow pedestrian trails as a way of mitigating residents’ opposition.
While there is no talk of a trail on the Treasure Coast adjacent to All Aboard Florida tracks, Bryan said, the two groups are discussing a trail alongside the southern All Aboard Florida track in Miami.
Rails-To-Trails is a national organization that converts old rail routes into trails, removing the actual tracks so the trail can be used by hikers, bicyclists or horseback riders. Good trails bring money to the local economy because hikers frequent stores, restaurants and sometimes hotels, he said.
Trails next to rails also keep people off the actual tracks. Railroads say trespassing often is a common problem because people use the tracks as shortcuts when walking, Bryan said.
Pedestrians actually are safer when walking along a trail next to a train track than walking next to a road or highway, he said. Trains are on a fixed track and operators usually are more trained and attentive than car drivers, he explained.