Lee, Collier officials look at preserving rail line for possible public use


Sunday, January 5, 2014

NORTH NAPLES — If nature lovers are ever able to set foot on a North Naples preserve, they could have a railroad line and a big idea to thank for it.

The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization is pushing the idea of the state Department of Transportation buying the land CSX owns underneath the railroad tracks used by Seminole Gulf Railway. The Lee MPO, a transportation planning board comprised of Lee city and county elected officials, sees it as a way to preserve the corridor to move people and freight.

A consultant’s report estimates buying up the CSX interests in the corridor from North Naples to the Lee-Charlotte county line could cost between $5 million and $15 million.

The Seminole Gulf line runs between Arcadia in Desoto County, where it connects with CSX lines to the north, and northern Collier County, where it slices through the 132-acre Railhead Scrub Preserve west of Old 41 Road before it ends south of Wiggins Pass Road.

The county’s Conservation Collier program bought the preserve for $32 million in two chunks in 2004 and 2007, knowing that access didn’t exist. Plans to build a road to it have been put off, and other access plans over the rail line proved too expensive.

A state purchase of the land beneath the railway, though, has renewed talk of using that right of way as a path for bicyclists, hikers and train riders to get to the preserve.

Even backers of the idea admit the prospect is likely years, maybe decades, away. However, the idea got a bit of a boost with a November vote by the Lee MPO to start working on it.

“I think it would be marvelous,” Conservation Collier coordinator Alexandra Sulecki said. “Right now, it (access) is very difficult. We’d really, really like to get access.”

The first step is to get various cities and counties through which the railroad runs to get on board with the state acquisition. That includes governments in Collier and Lee counties and the cities of Fort Myers and Bonita Springs.

“I think there’s good potential for all of us to work together,” Collier County Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Lucy Ayer said, adding that the availability of the right of way is a “big if.” “It’s something we should think about.”

A consultant’s report on the rail corridor plan envisions extending the line farther south to near Immokalee and Goodlette-Frank roads, an idea that Ayer said “would create some challenges.”

The Florida Department of Transportation is “not adverse to preserving the corridor” and would take its lead from local governments, DOT spokeswoman JoAnn May said.

“If preserving the corridor is a top priority for the MPO, the Department of Transportation will review the available funding options,” May said. “I see this being a long process.”

CSX representatvies couldn’t be reached for comment last week.

Lee MPO Director Don Scott said the company won’t even talk to DOT until there’s money behind the plan.

Seminole Gulf Railway’s lease of the right of way doesn’t expire for 34 years and could be renewed. The railroad owns the track and other improvements.

Seminole Gulf Railway spokesman Gordon Fay said that as long as the company is operating the railroad, the right of way will be preserved without having to spend public money.

“From a legal point of view, I think it’s foolishness,” Fay said. “It is already being preserved. We have no intention of giving it up.”

Seminole Gulf Railway runs a dinner train on the tracks in addition to handling freight, which has dropped off as the rececssion ate into the demand for building materials.

The railway handled about 7,000 carloads of freight in 2012, down from a peak of 15,000 carloads — newsprint, frozen goods, scrap metal, propane and lumber, according to the consultant’s report.

The consultant’s report said public purchase of the right of way wouldn’t affect Seminole Gulf operations under the current lease but envisions working with the railway to add public transit and a path for hikers and bicyclists.

Even with acquisition of the right of way, any assumption that the railroad would go away “doesn’t compute,” Fay said.

Scott, with the Lee MPO, said putting the right of way in public hands would help chances of getting federal grant money to add public uses to the corridor. But it’s a long-term process, so now is the time to start laying the tracks to get there, Scott said.

“If you’re not ready to do some of these things (when the opportunity arises), it’s too late,” he said.

 From the Naples Daily News, January 5, 2014