Jacksonville’s gas tax could finally revive the Emerald Trail

For as long as I can remember we have talked about resurrecting the emerald chain.

We talked about the past and potential of the Hogans and McCoy’s creeks as they were once beautiful waterways in the heart of Henry Klutho’s vision for Jacksonville after the great 1901 fire – a ribbon of greenways and paths that circled the core of the city.

We talked about this necklace like it was an urban gem that was brought to a downtown pawn shop decades ago that is in development and decay and is forgotten and tarnished.

Money for emerald trail? The Emerald Trail is in the spotlight of the Jacksonville gas tax hike debate

We’ve talked about how if only it could be restored, polished, and updated with 21st century flourishes, this gem could become something even more valuable than it was a century ago.

Some people did more than just talk.

Since 2014, Groundwork Jacksonville – the local subsidiary of a national nonprofit that focuses on public use of neglected land and waterways – has been working to restore the Emerald Chain.

Progress has been made. Local individuals, companies and associations donated time and money. Grants were lined up. The city has tied up enough money to get started. And the first phase of a planned 30-mile Emerald Trail – a 1.3-mile pilot project called LaVilla Link, which connects Brooklyn to LaVilla and the Rail Yard District – is taking shape.

Still, the emerald necklace remains more vision than reality at this point.

That could change on Wednesday.

We could go from talking to doing right away.

If Jacksonville City Council approves a gas tax hike, it will produce more than $ 900 million for road, drainage and transportation projects – including $ 132 million that City Council transferred last week from the future of the Skyway to the future of the Emerald Trail has moved.

“It’s a nice little walk through here”

When I used the 50th Anniversary of Consolidation as an excuse to hike via Jacksonville and get from Baldwin to the beaches with a series of weekly walks, I did one leg of the walk about 7 miles of the suggested Emerald Trail route.

Kay Ehas, CEO of Groundwork Jacksonville, and Larry Roberts, President of JTC Running, took Times Union columnist Mark Woods on a tour of the proposed Emerald Trail in 2018 - including this existing stretch of the S-Line Trail in Durkeeville.

Kay Ehas, CEO of Groundwork Jacksonville, and Larry Roberts, President of JTC Running, played hiking guides and explained the plans for the trail.

I started that day in the Rail Yard District, where I stopped at Tabula Rasa Brewing, a place that had just opened next to McCoy’s Creek. Randy Peterson, the co-owner, spoke about how a living emerald necklace could help his business.

“What could be nicer about this chain than having a craft brewery,” he said. “It just fits.”

We walked through LaVilla and New Town and hopped on the existing S-Line Rails-to-Trails path that will become part of the Emerald Trail. In Durkeeville we had a chat with a 30 year old who was walking the other way.

Michael Walker said the trail made a difference in the neighborhood in that it used to be “really bad”, but the trail helped move the needle towards safety and stability.

“It’s a nice little walk here,” he said.

He talked about using the path to go to a bus stop on Beaver Street. And like there are some regulars, old people he often sees on their morning walk, cups of coffee in their hands. And how it helps children get to school and the Mal Washington tennis center.

Randy Peterson and his family opened Tabula Rasa (translated)

We walked through Springfield with the remains of Klutho’s vision, the crumbling Venetian style balustrades along Hogans Creek.

We talked about what a revived emerald necklace could look like – and what it could mean for the neighborhoods and the city.

It’s exciting to think that now this could be more than just a conversation.

A worthwhile use of taxpayers ’money

I’ve heard from some people who said it was nice that I like to go outside and use our parks and pathways, but they don’t – and they don’t want more of their taxpayers’ money devoted to such things.

Do I have selfish reasons for investing more money in parks, making our waterways more accessible, and making our country safer for pedestrians and cyclists?

Absolutely. Guilty as charged. But I think part of my counter-argument to that is that a lot of things were built with taxpayers money that I rarely use. For example, in the 18 years since the $ 130 million VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena was built, I’ve been to maybe half a dozen events. But I wouldn’t argue that we shouldn’t have built anything to replace the old Colosseum. (And not just because I’ve used the baseball stadium across the street, built in 2003, many times over the past 18 years.)

More importantly, while I don’t think a city should try to make its citizens healthier by limiting the size of a soda – as Michael Bloomberg tried in New York City – I do believe it is spending public dollars Taxpayers’ money is worth using in public places. And the payoff goes beyond the physical and mental health of a city’s residents.

It includes the city’s economic well-being.

One selling point for the Emerald Trail and generally a cohesive network of urban hiking trails that includes our river walks and bridges: We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We don’t serve as guinea pigs for a new idea. We borrow ideas and try to repeat what other cities have already done – with success that goes far beyond what happens on a pavement.

There are cities across America where the parks, greenways, and urban lanes have become part of what makes people live and visit there – and which, in turn, makes businesses big and small to be there.

As I walked the Emerald Trail, Ehas and Roberts mentioned what happened in Georgia around the 22-mile Atlanta Beltline and how it sparked social and economic growth.

They recommended reading “Where We Want To Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities,” a book by Ryan Gravel, the urban planner behind the Atlanta Beltline.

Gravel begins his book by saying, “In the rise and fall of cities throughout history, the places best positioned for a prosperous future have always been those that offer systems and structures to support people’s current needs . “

He says the type of infrastructure we build today is important to our success tomorrow. And that the problem doesn’t necessarily spread.

“The problem,” he writes, “is that we try so hard to promote and even subsidize virtually every aspect of urban sprawl as our dominant growth strategy – an investment that is clearly not in our best interests.”

He argues that urban sprawl is detrimental to our health and the environment, and puts a strain on our financial and natural resources. And he advocates why cities, after decades of subsidizing urban sprawl, should take a different path – one that includes, among other things, the path that would help revive our emerald chain.

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