Florida's River to Sea Loop bicycle trail is built on partnerships dating as far back as 1978. The initiative started with bicycle activists Herb Hiller, of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, and Linda Crider, formerly with the state's office of physical fitness and later with Bike Florida. They began working with the public and state government to tie trail-building to road-building. Later the state opened the Office of Greenways and Trails which works with the Florida Department of Transportation to apportion trail funding.
The linchpins for the St. Johns River to the Sea Loop were the state's purchase of a 51-mile rail bed in south Volusia and north Brevard counties and an 18-mile rail bed in west central St. Johns and northeast Putnam counties. The driving force behind these crucial acquistions was Ken Bryan of the Rails to Trails Conservancy. The thread for the southern buy was spun in 2001 by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, led by Seminole County's Sandra Glenn who died in 2005. Her mission to buy the rail bed and turn it into a trail was carried on with perseverance by Volusia County Council Member Pat Northey and then Brevard County Council Member Truman Scarborough. They worked steadily with people like Volusia County engineer John Harper to design the trail and gave the project credibility to assure the state would take them seriously.
Playing an important part of the acquisition was Glenn Storch, a Daytona Beach development attorney, whose client owned much of the adjacent land and who promised Northey early on that "we will make this happen." Many people worked hard, sorting through property titles and showing doubters how trails can transform communities.
The state purchase of the 51-mile rail bed, in turn, motivated Hiller. As part of the East Coast Greenway Alliance he worked with the state to build bike trails and bike lanes going from DeLand north to Palatka, roughly paralleling the St. Johns River. There were already lanes and trails in the works to connect inland Palatka to St. Augustine.
Hiller contacted Bike Florida's (www.bikeflorida.org) Crider and they began planning tours of the Loop. The first tour of the Loop was in 2008. That same year, then chair of the Brevard County Commission Truman Scarborough conceptualized a memorandum of agreement that challenged Brevard, Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties to knit the trail together. In September of 2008, an unprecedented commitment was put in writing and signed by officials from the five counties. Dignitaries and signees included Congressman John Mica, Northey, and other representatives from state, federal and nonprofit organizations witnessed and supported the event. To emphasize the meaning of this trail, a memorandum of understanding was placed in a shuttle at Cape Kennedy and flown into space.
The first documented tour took place in November, sponsored by the Florida Wildflower Foundation and the Florida Greenways and Trail Foundation. The tours followed the East Coast Greenway along Florida's Atlantic Coast and the St Johns River corridor, sometimes following and other times paralleling what was to become the final route of the SJR2C. On the 2008 ride, in addition to Hiller and Crider, were the late Kay Semion (newspaper editor, civic leader and avid cyclist, who wrote an article on which part of this history is based), RonCunningham (then of the Gainesville Sun, later Bike Florida, now retired), Cyndi Stevenson, St Johns County Commission Chair, Billy Zeits, a St Johns environmental planner, Jim Tulley, mayor of Titusville, and Charles Paiva, a city commissioner from Deland. All the participants were sold on the benefits of cycling trails not just for themselves, but for their communities.
In November of 2009 the East Coast Greenway Alliance, working with co-sponsors Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation and Bike Florida organized the Third Close the Gaps Club Tour. Soon after, the Alliance drew Bike Florida to the loop in a program of week-long 'boutique' tours that have turned that homegrown company from an annual mass ride sponsor into a provider of year-round tours which, for their authentic interpretation of backroads Florida, today equal the sophisticated programs of much longer established companies.
First Florida Train to Trail Tour
In August 2014, the East Coast Greenway Alliance launched the first-ever Florida Rail to Trail Tour. The Tour took advantage of the new SunRail commuter train that runs from Orlando to Debary and carries bicycles for free.
With support and guidance from Hiller and Ted Wendler, four intrepid cyclists completed the tour. The touring cyclists who set off August 1 are Mighk and Carol Wilson of Orlando, and Laura Hallam and Robert Seidler of Sopchoppy. Carol Wilson and Hallam are former executive directors of the Florida Bicycle Association; Mighk Wilson is smart growth planner for MetroPlan Orlando, and Seidler a filmmaker who has chronicled the rise of bicycling and trails around America. (Photos by Seidler, Hallam and Wilson).
Chief tour sponsors included VISIT FLORIDA, the Florida Hospital system, East Coast Greenway Alliance, DeLand Area Chamber of Commerce, Orange Cycle, Cobb Cole, West Volusia Tourism Advertising Authority and the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council.
For nearly four decades Florida trail leaders like Hiller, Northey, and others have continued to work diligently to make the trail a reality. The East Coast Greenway Alliance has designated the St Johns River-to-Sea Loop designated as part of the East Coast Greenway, with the Eastern sections being the primary route and the Western Sections designated as an alternate route. Hiller, Northey and others continued working closely with the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation and Office of Greenways and Trails to have the St Johns River-to-Sea Loop designated as one of Florida's top Priority Trail Networks.
Vision, Commitment, Perseverance and Finally Success
In the spring of 2016 the Office of Greenways and Trails (OGT) and the Florida Greenways and Trails Council (FGTC) solicited citizen input for the next "Priority Trail" to receive state funding. A campaign led by trail advocates like Pat Northey stimulated an unprecedented number of emails and letters in support of the St John River to Sea Loop. In the end over 80 private citizens wrote in support of the Loop and this was a deciding factor in the select of the Loop.. Click HERE to read a selection of official letters from Pat Northey, Congressman John Mica, supporting county commissions, the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, the River to Sea TPO (R2CTPO), and many other advocates.
On March 31, 2016 the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop on March 31 received a nod from the Florida Greenways and Trails Council that will clear a path for state funding toward the trail's completion. The Council ranked the Loop trail first among seven regional trail system projects in Florida that have been recommended for the Florida Department of Transportation's Shared Use Non-motorized Trail (SUN Trail) funding. Only two trails have received the top priority ranking for the department's $25 million annual appropriation for SUN Trail funding - the 260-mile St Johns River-to-Sea Loop and the 250-mile Florida Coast to Coast Trail.
The St Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance was established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in July of 2016 with the mission to support, advance, advocate, promote and protect the St Johns River-to-Sea Loop.