Streets for People / New “Locals” Multi-Use Paths Behind the Airport Move Closer to Reality, Maybe

Three new multi-use paths behind the airport are moving closer to reality as City and County officials take the advice of the Parks and Recreation Board and use the City/County Hawk Missile Site/Higgs Beach land swap as a mechanism to get the process started. The City Commission approved the land swap agreement, negotiated between City and County staff that includes the trails on March 7. The County Commission has the agreement on its March 22 agenda. If, as expected, the County approves the agreement, then the hard work begins. That’s why we hedge our bet with a maybe, because working in an environmentally sensitive area, next to an airport means layers of rules, conditions, permits and bureaucracy, any one of which could derail the project, despite good intentions.

Trail number one would be a new “Salt Ponds Multi-Use Path” connecting the communities of Ocean Walk, Las Salinas, Seaside and Sunrise Suites to downtown via a safer and time saving short cut behind the airport that will shave 10+ minutes off the existing 30-minute bike commute. Another is the “Smathers Beach Multi-Use Path” connecting Flagler with a short-cut to the beach behind the Key West By the Sea condo. And yet a third multi-use mini path would provide a short-cut from Flagler via Riviera Street (not Drive) to Little Hamaca Park. 

This is a big deal because it resurrects and makes real some old pathways that were used by locals a generation ago and fulfills some of the key visions of the City’s adopted Bike/Ped Plan. By making it easier and safer for workers to bike downtown and for locals in New Town to get to the beach and Little Hamaca Park it gives more people the option of ditching a car for these trips. And when more people choose to bike instead of drive, we all win by reducing traffic and parking congestion. But for these trails to become a reality, local residents and workers are going to have to demand the City and the County overcome the bureaucratic inertia built into a difficult project like this and insist we find ways to get it done.

How We Got Here

The 2019 Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan calls for building the Salt Ponds Trail, called the “Airport Connector” in the document, and the little short cut from Flagler via Riviera Street to Little Hamaca Park on page 65. The Salt Ponds Multi-Use Path cuts from access behind the Sunrise Suites to behind the backside of the Key West International Airport, with the ideal design, using a wide elevated concrete boardwalk where needed to traverse water and wetlands with limited impact of nature, to Government Road where it would cross Flagler Avenue at 7th Street and then connect up with the Crosstown Greenway. The “Smathers Beach Connector” is found on page 69 of the Bike/Ped Plan. Both paths are described in detail, along with locals’ recollections of their origins here.

In 2021 the City’s then Multi-Modal Coordinator Tim Staub identified beginning design and planning for the “Salt Ponds” and “Smathers Beach trails in 2022. That generated excitement in the community. In our story, What’s Old is New Again. Two New Bike Trails Take Us Back in Time to a Simpler Key West, April 30, 2021, we shared some locals’ stories about how these had all been informal paths back in the day and that Key West Bicycle Coordinator Jim Malcom had tried to revive and formalize them before his untimely death in 2008. Nothing came of Mr. Malcom’s Plans until people remembered it during community meetings and had it put in the Bike Plan. In our 2021 story we wrote:

“Former City Manager Greg Veliz was said to be a champion of these trails because it revives routes that many Conchs used to use to wander through the Salt Ponds.”

Despite Tim Staub putting the projects in his work plan, it looked like they may stall out because of how complicated the reality of building anything in Salt Ponds was proving to be. In our story, Airport’s Need for Additional City Land Could Help Spur Salt Ponds and Smathers Beach “Locals” Bike Trails, February 11, 2022 we discussed how the potential land swap between the County, wanting the City-owned Hawk Missile Site and the City, wanting the County-owned Higgs Beach, gave all the Salt Ponds trails renewed life.

City’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board Leads

With the County wanting to swap land to help facilitate airport expansion, the City Commission tasked the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board with looking into and making recommendations on the land swap. The P&R Board had many meetings and discussions over a two-year period with the community about activating the HAWK area (over 60 acres) as a passive park and valuable asset to the City and have always included the “multi-use” paths as a key element. As one P&R Board member said to me: “These are more than just bike paths. They are recreational trails for walkers, runners, and all sorts of people to use to access outdoors and nature.” 

The Board has been instrumental in ensuring the paths would become a reality by insisting that getting them constructed be included in any Inter-Local-Agreement (ILA) between the County and City for the land swap. Here’s how Parks and Recreation Advisory Board Chair Tiffany Pellicier put it:

“This is an exciting opportunity for the City and the County to work together to revitalize an area while also creating a safer space for our biking, walking and alternative transportation community. A lot of great work and visionary plans are readily available as a result of the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan as well as some positive preliminary correspondence between the County and the Department of Interior and National Park Service. The tricky part will be navigating the state, federal and environmental agencies throughout the permitting process. However, I’m confident and hopeful that both governing bodies will work in tandem to see this project to completion.”

City Approves Agreement, County Up Next and Then…

On March 7 the City Commission approved the ILA with the provision that their staff would provide the County with concept plans for the new trail within one year. Upon receipt of the plan, the County would have three years to move from concept to formal design, get all necessary approvals and construct the trail. Per the agreement, once the County approves the ILA, which has already been negotiated by staff, the clock will start ticking.

We’re told the Bike/Ped Plan itself already provides a good conceptual framework from which the process can begin. City staff has also prepared a $158,000 request to FDOT for a “Salt Ponds Pathways Feasibility Study” Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) grant to supplement the work already done in the Bike/Ped Plan with more specifics. Both sides have agreed they’ll be flexible on the exact timing, but the City Manager said she thought her staff would meet the one-year deadline to get concepts to the County.

At that point the County, “to the extent allowed by city, county, and federal laws and regulations governing the airport and the salt ponds” would then have three years to construct a path. To the extent that financing is available, more than one path could be done. If all goes well, we’re talking about spring/summer 2027 before these are done. 

Residents Need to Vocally Support the Salt Ponds Multi-Use Pathways

Nothing good is easy. And these paths being built on land the U.S. Department of Interior gave the City attached with many conditions, that are in an environmentally sensitive area and next to an airport will prove complex. And expensive. As staff hit roadblocks and NIMBYS , naysayers and whatabouters come out of the woodwork, as they do for any project, it will be important that the locals these multi-use paths are intended for, speak up and say, “Yes, we want these, find a way to get it done.” 

Speaker Bert Sise said at the March 7 City Commission meeting in speaking of the agreement: “…and yes put in bike paths from S. Roosevelt to Government Road so people from the condos can ride bikes instead of being on Flagler, which is a deathtrap and there’s no real good bike lanes on the promenades anymore.” Building the Salt Ponds Multi-Use Path will help these workers. And building all these “Locals” short-cut paths will make our island smaller and therefore more convenient and much safer to get around by bike. And that’s very good for all of us in so many different ways. Please let your City and County Commissioners know you support these paths too.

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Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a few non-profits. Follow him on Twitter here and his blog here.

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