Group explores bike path from Naples to Miami through the Everglades

River of Grass Greenway

River of Grass Greenway

Ranger with a family taking a Bike Tour of the Everglades in 1978. National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

Ranger with a family taking a Bike Tour of the Everglades in 1978. National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

The four-lane highway connecting Naples to Miami is a straight shot for drivers zipping from coast to coast.

Alligator Alley opened as two lanes in 1969, providing an alternative to a winding Tamiami Trail that had served as the primary route across the swampland since 1928.

Now a coalition of avid bicyclists want to build a parallel corridor, a 75-mile path for walkers, bikers, bird watchers and tourists to traverse the Everglades at a more leisurely pace.

The River of Grass Greenway project is in its infancy as far as trail projects go. The are millions to be raised and years of planning and building remain.

But backers of the project through the Naples Pathways Coalition, who conceived the idea in 2006, said the it will leave a lasting legacy for locals and tourists.

"This is something our children and grandchildren will get to enjoy," said Michelle Avola Reese, executive director of the Naples Pathways Coalition.

The project has already garnered about $5 million in federal and state grants to pay for designs and a feasibility study, which is taking place now.

Naples residents met with consultants to give their input this week as part of that study. More round tables will be held in Everglades City in February and in Miami in March.

By spring, the group should know whether the idea is possible and how much it will cost to pave a 12-14 foot wide path through the Everglades.

"You can't build anything until you've studied it to death," Avola Reese said. "This is one I actually agree they have to study to death."

Building pathways on federal lands with federal money is what Chuck Flink specializes in.

Flink, a greenway consultant, is overseeing the project here, working with officials in Naples and Miami to design a path with fingers leading to Everglades City and the Miccosukee Indian Village among other historic sites.

He spent 10 years overseeing 15 miles of new greenway in the Grand Canyon, a typical time frame for projects in a sensitive landscape, he said. He's worked on trails of more than a couple hundred miles.

"Anytime you get over 40 or 50 miles in a singular project, it becomes unique," Flink said. "There's not a ton of them out there."

Once designers can overcome the water and wetlands, taking advantage of levees and old logging roads to connect the two cities, Flink said the path can become a world-class trail, one that will attract international visitors and boost the area's tourism industry.

"There's a real rising interest in this type of opportunity from a tourism point of view," Flink said. "The impact these kind of facilities have can be in the millions of dollars."

Everglades resident Patty Huff, a co-chair on the subcommittee working on the new greenway, said riding with high-speed traffic along Tamiami Trail gave her fellow committee member Maureen Bonness the idea for a separate bike path.

"I'm a long-distance bicycle rider and I've ridden on roads like this around the country," Huff said. "And this is one of the most dangerous I've ever been on."

But Huff said the path would not just benefit fellow cyclists.

"It's for anyone who wants to enjoy the Everglades outside of a car," she said.

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