Trump’s man in Florida

Very early on in my Navy stint I signed a petition.

Yeah, I know. But it was the sixties and my generation was going to change the world. Cue Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

I don’t even remember what we were seeking redress for. I do remember my Come To Jesus meeting with a kindly chief bosuns mate who gently explained that when the Navy wanted my opinion they’d beat it out of me.

Or words to that effect. 

Fine, the military isn’t a democracy. But that’s pretty much the same message Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered when he signed legislation making it harder, if not impossible, to get citizen-initiated amendments to the Florida constitution on the ballot.

Memo to Floridians: When we want your opinion we’ll tell your elected representative what it is.

Unless your elected representative is a Democrat, in which case keep your lame opinions to yourself.

So much for our new breath-of-fresh-air chief executive. 

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 

Listen, the elected elite in Tallahassee hate it when the peons try to tell them what to do via amendment initiative. And for the most part when that happens they try their best to ignore whatever the mandate might be.

Polluter Pays? Nah, Big Sugar buys too many politicians to have to spend even more money saving the Everglades.

The conservation land and water amendment? They laughed it off.

Let former felons vote? Not unless they pay through the nose first.

Fair districts? Well, the Legislature tried to ignore it but for once the courts insisted. 

Which is the real reason for this new move to criminalize the petition gathering process. 

The big Florida Republican priority right now is to deliver the state to Donald Trump next year. 

That should be easy, except that Trump steps on his own tongue so much that he makes everything harder than it ought to be. 

The last thing the party wants to see is Trump’s name on the same ballot as a constitutional amendment to ban assault weapons. That might turn out altogether the wrong sort of voter.

The assault weapons ban has already collected more than 100,000 signatures, but it needs 766,200 valid names to get on the ballot. 

“I think it’s very unfortunate that they want to muzzle Florida citizens from conducting democracy and giving us a voice,” Gail Schwartz, chair of the initiative drive, told Florida Phoenix. “It is going to make things harder and it is going to make things more expensive…”

Which is pretty much the point. DeSantis rode into the governor’s office on Trump’s blessing, and now he’s bound to return the favor. 

And it’s not just an assault weapons ban that worries the elites. Other petition initiatives hovering over the 2020 ballot propose to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid coverage for the poor, open up primary elections to all voters (horrors!) and require background checks for firearms purchases.

The peasants are revolting! Time to crack the whip.

Florida has been under one-party rule for more than 20 years. During that time the reds in power have done everything possible to insulate themselves against demographic shifts that might give the blues some wiggle room. Voter purges? Sure. Voting registration barriers? Why not? Gerrymandering? As long as they could get away with it. And now weaponizing the constitution against the reformers in the cheap seats. 

Ain’t democracy wonderful?

“A direct democracy is for other places,” Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, famously said this past session, “not, namely, the United States or the state of Florida,” 

Oh, right, I forgot.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

Time for a managed retreat

We did not save the best for last on our Forgotten Coast Tour. 

In fact, on the very first day of Bike Florida’s most popular small group tour our riders were treated to something truly extraordinary. Call it a blast from the past.

Leaving Port St. Joe cyclists headed west on U.S. 98. On their left the aqua blue Gulf of Mexico glistened in the sun, and no wall-to-wall condos blocked that extraordinary view. No cookie-cutter chain restaurants. No glass towers blotting out the sky, housing northern retirees determined to spend their final years perched on the edge of paradise. 

Cycling past the quirky El Governor Hotel, the Crab Shack, Toucans and the Grey Whale. Stopping for a break at the Visitors Center, next to the Giant Chair. 

Mexico Beach in all its retro glory. Looking still as though it had been ripped from the pages of a 1960s-era travel guide.

Last year we had to cancel our tour because Hurricane Michael got there first, leaving much of the Forgotten Coast disheveled and almost all of Mexico Beach in ruins. And today, eight months later, Mexico Beach is still mostly rubble. Many of its residents continue to live in wretched conditions as they wait for vindictive members of Congress to stop playing games with a long delayed disaster relief bill. 

Politicians from the President on down have promised to put things back the way they were. But you really can’t put Mexico Beach back the way it was. When rebuilding begins in earnest, the ubiquitous condos and towers and cookie cutter chains will inevitably replace the modest beach houses and mom-and-pop motels that gave the town its charm. 

Which begs the larger question: Even if we could put Mexico Beach back the way it was, should we?

Given what we know about the inevitability of sea level rise. About climate change generating ever more extreme hurricanes. About the corrosive march of coastal erosion despite our best efforts to armor against it.

Not to mention the spiraling fiscal liability of supporting a national flood insurance program that pays to rebuild in areas that have flooded before and will certainly do so again. 

“Across the nation, tens of billions of tax dollars have been spent on subsidizing coastal reconstruction in the aftermath of storms, usually with little consideration of whether it actually makes sense to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas,” noted the New York Times in 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. 

Seven years and several hurricanes later, we’re still giving scant consideration to whether it makes sense to rebuild vulnerable communities like Mexico Beach. 

Which is not to say that disaster victims should be abandoned. A saner policy would make displaced residents whole again by giving them the means to rebuild – just not in the same place. In return for that compensation, coastal and flood plane properties would revert to conservation, never to be built upon again. 

A so-called “managed retreat” policy would, over time, not only move residents inland and out of harm’s way, but also enable coastal areas to “heal themselves,” as it were. Construction being a main cause of coastal erosion 

“Managed or planned retreat…allows the shoreline to advance inward unimpeded,” explains beachapedia.org. As the shore erodes, buildings and other infrastructure are either demolished or relocated inland.”

Mexico Beach was a true Florida treasure. But we know from bitter experience that it is possible to love our Florida treasures to death. 

Better to let it go and fondly remember Mexico Beach the way it was. 

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and one-time executive director of Bike Florida. This column was published in The Sun on June, 2, 2019.)

Hurricanes and asphalt

Donna put a palm tree in my room.

No, not my sister Donna. Hurricane Donna. 

That was in 1960. I was 12 years old. We were living in Hollywood, which happened to be in Donna’s direct line of fire on its way from Cuba to New York. 

The palm tree in question used to live in our side yard. But sometime during that long, windy, scary night Donna broke it off like a matchstick and propelled it through our roof and into my bedroom. 

I wasn’t there. We had already evacuated to our landlord’s house – bigger, newer and presumably more tempest resistant than our rental.

I can only imagine how that night might have turned out if we South Floridians had been encouraged to pile into our 1950s-era vehicles and make tracks en masse for the Georgia border before Donna could catch us. 

Of course, that was before we had the benefit of a network of modern interstates  – which in turn brought millions of additional people to Florida, facilitated endless sprawl development, and thereby put even more people in harm’s way during hurricane season. Our Donna-damaged home in was just a few blocks away from where I-95 was even then under construction.

I only bring this up to recall that there was a time when hurricane evacuation in Florida meant getting people away from the coast or out of unsafe housing and maybe moving them inland a few miles to wait out the storm. If we hadn’t been in our landlord’s house we might have ended up in a school auditorium, a church or some other community storm shelter.

But, really, that’s so last century. 

Now the preferred method of evacuation seems to be scaring residents into their cars by the hundreds of thousands and stampeding them north. But last time we tried such a mass exodus from our narrow peninsula, last year during Hurricane Irma, it backed up traffic for miles and left uncounted hurricane refugees stranded on interstate highways in the middle of nowhere with neither fuel, shelter or succor.

Fortunately, Irma turned out to be not as destructive as anticipated. When Texas went the mass evacuation route, in 2005 ahead of Rita, thousands of people ran out of gas on the interstate and two dozen of them died.

One big problem with mass evacuations is the panic ripple effect. Of the nearly 7 million Floridians who took to their cars to escape Irma, only about half of them actually lived in designated evacuation zones. The rest presumably scared themselves into running. 

So how do we solve the problems inherent in mass evacuations? By reverting to the old tried and true model of designating safe, community-based hardened shelters?

Nah. Clearly we need to build additional traffic lanes so as to better disperse the flood of ‘cane refugees and thus more efficiently funnel them north. Another eight lanes ought to do the trick. Or maybe 10 lanes or 12 or 16…..

Yeah, more asphalt is just the ticket. 

Hence the multi-billion dollar plan recently approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis to run new extensions of Florida Turnpike toll roads through virgin landscapes along the western side of our narrow peninsula. 

Backers of the expansion repeatedly cited the need to provide more evacuation routes as justification. And, as a side benefit, if that means opening up hundreds of thousands of currently underutilized rural lands to new suburban and exurban development opportunities, then so much the better. What’s good for business – for the land speculators and developers – is good for Florida, right?

Of course, opening up that much new land for sprawl development will eventually mean that millions more Floridians may need to be stampeded to Georgia and points north every time a “Big One” looms on the horizon. Then, presumably, the politicians will be able to justify building even more lanes of asphalt at a cost of additional billions of dollars.

It is a vicious cycle that will never end. Good news for the land speculators and developers. Bad news for taxpayers and future hurricane victims. 

The Blue-Green Algae State

Remember that scene from “Jaws” when the police chief wanted to close the beaches and the mayor said no because it would scare off the tourists?

What an amateur. The mayor could have gotten some bureaucrat to post cautionary tips for shark infested waters (1. Look out for fins…) and washed his hands of the whole thing.

Ah Memorial Day weekend. The official kickoff of summer. Millions of Floridians and visitors alike will flock to the beaches. Tens of thousands more will plunge into our clear, cool springs, or take a river dip.

Wait, is that a fin? Is that a gator’s snout? Oh no, killer Suwannee River leaping sturgeon! Cue to panic mode. Summon Chief Brody, Hooper the shark geek and Quint the great white slayer. 

Or maybe just call a bureaucrat.

At the beginning of what promises to be a long, hot summer, Florida doesn’t have a shark problem, or a gator problem or even a leaping sturgeon problem. It’s got a red tide and blue green algae problem. Forget flashing white teeth and start worrying about flesh eating bacteria.

With toxic algae already appearing up and down the St. John’s River the Florida Department of Health has issued the following….um, tips:

Avoid scummy, foamy water (duh!).

Don’t eat fish caught in said scummy, foamy water. 

Don’t let Fido drink it.

If the water isn’t foamy and scummy but the fish still looks sickly, well don’t eat that either

Don’t swim in, jet ski through, or play in….well, you know.

And if some of it accidentally gets splashed on you, be sure to wash it off right away. 

With soap and…um…water.

And that’s not all. Just in time for Memorial Day, the slumbering Environmental Protection Agency – ever a day late and a dollar short – has issued new guidelines for determining when blue green algae has gotten too blue and green to be messed with. 

“With Memorial Day and summer vacations around the corner, EPA is providing this information to help Americans know when it is safe to swim and play near the water,” says an EPA bulletin.

But remember, this is Trump’s EPA. So we shouldn’t be surprised if the new thresholds are – dare we say? – “liberal” enough to please even the skittish mayor of Amity.

“We are very disappointed by the EPA’s decision to recommend criteria for toxic algae that are far less protective” than limits that were recommended in a 2016 EPA draft but never adopted.

This from Jason Totoiu, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity: “Dangerous cyanotoxins threaten our state’s families, waters and wildlife,” he told the Ft. Myers News Press. “Referring to the EPA guidelines, he added, “we expected better and we will be petitioning the state, which is well aware of the crisis before us, to adopt more stringent water quality criteria for toxic algae in Florida’s waters.”

What, and scare off the tourists?

Not to make light of all of this, but we’ve seen this coming. We saw it coming when Rick Scott became governor and proceeded to turn the Department of Environmental Protection into the Department of Environmental Whatever. When he gutted the water management districts and fired the scientists and put the polluters in charge of protection. When Donald Trump started undoing every Obama-era environmental protection reg he could get his tiny hands on. When we turned Lake Okeechobee into an open sewer. When we began dumping vast quantities of toxic gunk and sewage sludges into the St. John’s. When dolphins started going belly up in the Indian River Lagoon. When the red tide stopped becoming a Gulf Coast problem and started creeping up and down the Atlantic side. 

We saw it coming and we kept electing and re-electing the politicians who were letting it happen. 

So by all means, let’s stay out of the foamy, scummy water this summer. It’ll all clear up by January, or February at the latest. And now that Red Tide Rick has been safely packed away to the D.C. Swamp, things will be fine back here in the Blue-Green Algae State.

 

Ron’s hot asphalt folly

It’s never too soon to start working on the legacy thing.

I had rather hoped that Gov. Ron DeSantis would carry on the legacy of fellow Republican Claude Kirk. Instead he has opted to emulate Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. A Democrat.

Yeah, I know, Kirk was a bit of an eccentric, even a loose cannon. But he was also Florida’s first real environmental governor. 

In his biography “Claude Kirk and the Politics of Confrontation,” Edmund F. Kallina Jr. writes that Kirk “gave impetus to the environmental movement in Florida. Before his election environmentalism was anathema to all but a few politicians….Kirk personally led a crusade that made environmental protection a popular issue.”

Kirk brought Nat Reed – a visionary Florida conservationists – to Tallahassee to help shape state environmental policy. He opposed construction of a massive jetport in the Everglades. Heck, years after Kirk left office, he traveled around the state arguing for normalized relations with Cuba – if only to get major polluter Big Sugar out of the Everglades and back to the island paradise where it came from. 

But DeSantis hasn’t got the sand to be a Claude Kirk. Far better to emulate Florida’s turn-of-the-20th century “open for business” Gov. Broward. 

Broward was also a colorful boat rocker. Hell, he used to run guns to Cuba. But unlike Kirk, Broward was a graduate of the school of Florida politics that deems extremism in the defense of growth, growth and more growth never quite extreme enough. 

Case in point: When Henry Flagler was building his railroad up and down the east coast of Florida, he left an inconvenient problem behind up north – namely a wife who had been committed to an asylum.

Flagler wanted a divorce, but Florida law didn’t allow divorce on the grounds of mental health. That is until an accommodating Legislature, in 1901, passed a law declaring that “incurable insanity in either husband or wife shall be a ground for dissolution” of marriage.

As a state legislator, Broward voted for the “Flagler divorce bill.” But, really, he was only kidding, as Diane Roberts points out in her terrific Florida book “Dream State.”

After Flagler secured his divorce, Broward became governor. And then, as Roberts writes, Broward had Flagler’s mental health loophole repealed “with a maximum of righteous table-whacking and rococo speeches from legislators about the sanctity of marriage.“

But no question Florida was open for business under our home-grown Napoleon. 

If playing divorce lawyer for robber barons was his only offense, Broward might be forgiven. But it wasn’t. Instead, he was the governor who began in earnest the ditching, dredging and diking of the Florida Everglades in an attempt to turn all of that worthless swamp into productive farms, towns and cities. “Water will run downhill,” was Broward’s battle cry, as he tried to drain the Glades downhill into the Atlantic Ocean. 

“The water used to rule,” Roberts writes of Broward’s legacy, “now men with dredging machines and dynamite would rule.”

More than a century later we taxpayers are still paying for Napoleon’s folly – spending untold billions of dollars trying to restore the some semblance of natural hydraulic flow and function to the gutted Glades. 

So what has all of this to do with Gov. DeSantis? Well, his carefully cultivated a Teddy Roosevelt Republican image was shredded all to hell when our new governor signed a bill authorizing major new turnpike construction up and down the western half of the Florida peninsula. 

These days it isn’t just water, but asphalt that determines Florida’s destiny. And just as Broward went to bat for Flagler when he wanted a quicky divorce, DeSantis is helping out millionaire and billionaires who own thousands of acres of undeveloped land in rural Florida – land that will eventually become prime developable real estate after we taxpayers pay to connect them with new hot asphalt. 

“I think we need new roads in Florida to get around,” DeSantis said right before he signed the turnpike extension bill. 

Like Broward, DeSantis was only kidding. He really meant to say that we need new roads to create new sprawl and generate new profits for land speculators and developers. That expansion will expose vast areas of heretofore protected natural springs, rivers and wetlands to dredge and fill development. 

Oh, but DeSantis did bolster his environmental creds a tad by vetoing a legislative ban on local governments outlawing disposable plastic straws. Big whup. 

While we’re on the subject of legacies, I predict that going forward DeSantis will no longer draw favorable comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt, but rather to another, less estimable, Republican, Herbert Hoover. 

Hoover’s name graces the dike that turned the once wild and free Lake Okeecobee into a festering cesspool. That’s another colossal ecological mistake that we Floridians are still throwing money at and trying to rectify more than a century later. 

Republicans named the Florida Turnpike after Ronald Reagan. Please, oh please, let’s name these expansions the Ron DeSantis Freeway, so our descendants will know who to blame long after we are dead and the damage has been well and truly done.  

We’re killing our rivers

When Abe Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe he reportedly said “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

This because Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” helped fuel popular sentiment to free the slaves.

Too bad she couldn’t likewise free Florida’s St. Johns River.

“The wild untouched banks are beautiful but the new settlements generally succeed in destroying all Nature’s beauty, and give you only leafless, girdled trees, blackened stumps and naked white sand in return,” Stowe, who kept a winter home on the river, lamented in her 1873 book “Palmetto Leaves.”

Flash forward nearly a century and a half, and the 233-mile St. Johns, Florida’s only EPA-designated American Heritage River, is also one of its most endangered. 

“YUK!  Look at my river today.  First time I’ve seen the entire river green. Driving over the Palatka bridge is scary…Hey Gov. DeSantis we need to do something.”

That Facebook post was made last week by Sam Carr, who lives on the river south of Palatka. In a follow up post a few days later, Carr added “The river is still sick…I have come to the conclusion that the dumping of sludge on the headwaters of the SJR is the major difference..

“I call it the Gov. Rick Scott Memorial Algae Bloom.”

Carr knows the St. Johns like an old friend. He fishes it almost daily and has explored its length, tracing the journeys of his hero, William Bartram, the Quaker naturalist whose popular writings and drawings introduced the St. Johns to the rest of the world.

And Carr’s criticism of now U.S. Sen. Scott is not misplaced. During his time as governor Scott gutted funding and staffing for Florida’s water management districts. And he turned the Department of Environmental Protection from a watchdog to a lap dog.

In the meantime, South Florida was running out of places to dump its sewage sludge. So in the past decade nearly 90,000 tons of the stuff has been trucked north and spread on agricultural lands around the headwaters of the St. Johns. 

“What happens, when you dump it in the headwaters, it all flows this direction,” Lisa Rinaman, of St. Johns Riverkeepers, said in a recent PBS interview. “And then there’s more pollution added on to it due to septic tanks in areas, agricultural runoff, urban fertilizers…”

Unfortunately the St. Johns is not alone in its environmental distress. Every time there’s a raw sewage spill in Valdosta, Ga. – which occurs with distressing frequently – the Suwannee River gets a little sicker. The mighty Apalachicola is being robbed of the fresh water it needs to keep its celebrated oyster beds healthy. The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are poisoned whenever the cesspool formerly known as Lake Okeechobee is lowered to keep its levies from bursting. The Ocklawaha, once a major source of fresh water for the St. Johns, is impounded for the enjoyment of bass fisherman.  

Coming off a terrible year for red tides and blue green algae, Gov. DeSantis is promising to fix all of this. But the Florida Legislature just adjourned without doing anything to retard the pollution sources that are tainting our waters from panhandle to keys.

“It’s really bad and it’s gonna get worse” when summer begins to heat the river up, says Janice Brown-Stallings, who lives on the St. John’s in Welaka. It’s having an “awful impact on fishermen, crabbers, boaters, ecotourism and locals living along the river. Don’t eat anything from the river and certainly don’t swim or ski.”

Where is Harriett Beecher Stowe when Florida needs her?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in The Sun on May 5.

Another traffic scam

INVERNESS: On a recent Tuesday I sent 500 cyclists to Crystal River. 

And why not? What we try to do at Bike Florida’s annual spring tour is show our riders the very best this state has to offer. 

And Crystal River is a treasure. A cluster of 50 springs that discharge 64 million gallons of water daily, it is refuge for all manner of wildlife. It plays host to hundreds of manatees and draws fishermen, kayakers and snorkelers by the thousands. 

Still, I had some doubts about sending my cyclists there. And not because I thought Crystal River itself would disappoint. 

No, it was having to send them through 20 miles of suburban dreck that gave me pause. 

Because we – Floridians and snow birds alike – have larded Crystal River with subdivisions and strip malls and fast food restaurants and gas stations and motels and condos. Now you can barely see the water for all the steel and concrete. 

And we let pesticides, fertilizers and the detritus of “civilization” wash into those crystal waters. 

And we wonder where the algae blooms come from. 

And we suck up vast amounts of groundwater to keep our lawns green. 

And then wonder why the mighty Crystal River doesn’t seem quite so mighty anymore. 

We are loving this Florida treasure to death. And I fear the ecological havoc is irreversible. 

So why bring it up?

Because the main driver of all this ugly sprawl is a network of high-capacity highways that tie into the Suncoast Parkway and I-75. 

The Suncoast is a money-losing toll road and I-75 is habitually congested. (Our staff went into near panic the previous Sunday when a pile-up on the interstate spilled thousands of trucks, trailers, SUVs and pickups onto the rural Hernando County road that we had just put our cyclists on.)

The movers and shakers in the Florida Legislature say the way to “fix” this traffic mess is to build still more of the same. More high-speed, toll-financed interstate-scale highways up and down the western side of the state. The better to tie the Suncoast and the Florida Turnpike and I-75 together all the way from Collier County to Georgia. 

And to justify it they are pleading public safety. 

Just in case we ever need to evacuate Florida in case of hurricanes.

Because the best place to be during a hurricane is in your car. Storm-hardened shelters are way too dangerous. 

This is a scam, people. 

It’s a greed-driven scheme to spawn more sprawl, sow more subdivisions, subsidize more strip malls, fuel more car dealerships and create more condos up and down vast stretches of the most rural and unspoiled (read “developable”) lands Florida has left. 

Which brings me back to Crystal River. 

Personally I think it’s too late to save it. But it’s not too late to save Wacissa, Aucilla, the Suwannee and Wakulla (the only Florida spring cluster larger than Crystal River). 

It’s not too late to save Steinhatchee or Cedar Key or St. Marks or Fakahatchee or Big Bend or the rest of Florida’s out-of-reach-out-of-mind rural treasures. 

You want to see The Villages to stretch all the way from Ocala to Cedar Key? Build those new highways. 

You think we need to bail out the billionaire who bought half a million acres of land in Dixie, Taylor and Lafayette counties? Lay down that asphalt.

But don’t tell us it’s good public policy. It’s just more taxpayer subsidized despoliation (toll roads don’t always pay for themselves). 

We may be gullible but we’re not stupid.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and route coordinator for Bike Florida.

The Ancient City Ramble

I’ve always maintained that the best way to see a city is on a bicycle. And in the past few years I’ve had the good fortune to be able to tour Ottawa, Edinburgh, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Montreal, San Francisco, Helsinki and a few other great cities on two wheels.

But, listen, one of the best city bike tours you can take is right here in Florida. Try this 26-mile  self-guided Ancient City Ramble to experience the best that historic St. Augustine has to offer (sorry, New Mexico, Virginia and Mass, but we’re still No. 1 on the oldest city list).

Leave from the Ocean Pier on St. Augustine Beach. Why? Because it’s a great spot for a start-of-ride photo.

0.9 miles: Where the white crosswalk crosses Beach Blvd. look for a short unpaved footpath. Turn right there to get off A1A and into a lovely tree covered old Florida neighborhood. 

2.2 miles: That’s the St. Augustine Amphitheater on your right. There’s probably a concert there tonight. We’ve seen Willy Nelson, Steely Dan and a few other oldies but goodies there. 

2.9 miles: Stop and take the walk to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Best views in the city.

3.9 miles: The Conch House is one of the better known restaurants in St. Aug. Think a fish house on steroids. 

5.1 miles: Cross the historic Bridge of Lions. Take your lane, the cars behind you will wait.

5.9 miles: If you haven’t seen the honkin’ big Castillo de San Marcos, now’s your chance. Bristling with cannon and history.

6.6 miles: That’s the Great Cross on your right. Mariners can see it from miles out at sea. Great photo opportunity. Beautiful grounds. 

7.0 miles: The Fountain of Youth is not nearly as tourist hokey as it sounds. In fact, it’s a beautiful stroll along the Matanzas River and an informative walk through early Florida history.

6.6 miles: Yeah, you’re gonna cross that really tall bridge. It’s the only way to get to the quaint seaside community of Vilano Beach. 

8.8 miles: Well, you did the hard work of getting over that ginormous bridge. Might as well take a quick spin through Vilano before you have to ride back over it.

12.5 miles: That lovely campus on your right is the Florida School For The Deaf and Blind. 

13.8 miles: You are at Ft. Mose Park, site of the first free African settlement in North America. The fort is gone but there’s a museum there preserves its history and a really beautiful boardwalk stroll will lead you out into the marsh to the original site. 

14-14.3 miles: Exercise CAUTION on this left turn onto U.S. 1 quickly followed by another left  to get off of it. It’s a four-lane divided highway so take your time and execute these turns carefully and safely.

16.1: You’ve reached the Old City Gates and all of the Ancient City attractions on the pedestrian-only Spanish Street. Park your bike and take a stroll through history.

16.6: Flagler College is another excellent place to stop and walk. I recommend the guided tour, which will take you to the roof for great views.

17 miles: St. Augustine Distillery. You know what to do.

18.1 miles: That compound to your right is where the horses live when they are not pulling carriages up and down Ancient City streets.

18.1: You have arrived at one of St. Augustine’s best kept secrets, Freedom Park. Its circular bike-ped path gives you great views of the San Sebastián and Matanzas rivers, and there are great sculptures depicting the city’s African American heritage.

19 miles: You are in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic African American neighborhood. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested near here. Check out the Civil Rights House.

19.4: The coolest neighborhood in St. Aug. is the quaint waterside neighborhood of Lake Maria Sanchez. 

19.9: Lightner Museum on your left. The restored San Marco Hotel (great bar) on your right. 

20.2: Why did the cyclist cross the Bridge of Lions twice? To finish the ride of course. 

22.2: St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park. In addition to a swampload of reptiles this place boasts a world class rookery (birds like it here because the gators protect them from predators that can climb trees).

22.8: Can’t visit St. Augustine without seeing Anastasia State Park. You can rent kayaks and paddle boards on the salt run. Or walk for miles on its car-free beach. 

25.4: Thousands of motorists pass the St. Augustine Beach Sculpture Garden every day and don’t give it a second thought. But that’s their loss. This quirky collection of statuary clustered on the edge of a small lake is very cool.

26.2: You’re on Beach Blvd. Tons of great restaurants in case your hungry. 

26.4: Back at the Ocean Pier. You took a beginning-of-ride photo, might as well end the same way to commemorate a memorable urban ride.fba5f828-c6ed-49b3-9d37-6f7a394f98a2 Continue reading “The Ancient City Ramble”

The deadliest state to walk

Welcome to Florida. We’ve got it all.

Stunning beaches, world class theme parks. Enjoy your visit.

Just don’t get out of your car. 

Because outside the protection of your air conditioned steel exoskeleton, Florida’s car friendly roads are mean streets indeed.

Add to the growing list of things we don’t want tourists to know about – red tide, green algae, Florida Man – is this stunner. 

Florida is the most pedestrian deadly state in America.

Eight of the nation’s ten most dangerous metro areas for walkers are right here in the Sunshine State. Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Daytona, Ft. Myers, Sarasota…the usual suspects.

In just the past decade, more than 5,400 pedestrians in Florida have been killed by motorists. 

This according to the latest annual “Dangerous By Design” report by Smart Growth America.

Nationally, more than 49,000 pedestrians have been killed in the decade just past. 

“That’s more than 13 people per day, or one person every hour and 46 minutes,” the group reports. “It’s the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of people crashing—with no survivors—every single month.”

And here’s the really worrisome thing. Pedestrian death rates are on the rise even as overall traffic fatalities are decreasing. 

The last decade saw a 35 percent increase in pedestrian deaths. Meanwhile, fatalities among motor vehicle occupants shrank by 6.1 percent. 

So cars are getting safer? Well, they are certainly getting faster, bigger and heavier – witness the increase in SUV and pickup truck sales, while sedan lines are being discontinued for lack of consumer interest.

“Why is this happening?” poses SGA. “We’re not walking more, and we’re only driving slightly more than we were back in 2008.”

Rather, “we are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people.”

And you don’t have to go to Orlando or Tampa to see examples of dangerously overdesigned “stroads” (high-speed roads disguised as city streets). 

Just take a drive east on Archer Road through the heart of the UF medical center complex – at the point where the speed limit abruptly drops from 45 mph to 25 and then 20 mph.

That corridor is a pedestrian rich environment, with health care workers, visitors and patients alike crossing Archer to get from one hospital to another. So 20 mph makes eminent sense

But try driving the legal limit there and watch the cars speed past you. 

Again, the problem isn’t the posted limit. The problem is that Archer – and 34th Street, and 16th Blvd, and 13th Street and so many other Gainesville stroads – are designed to highway specifications, with broad, multiple travel lanes, clear lines of sight, and few roadside obstructions. 

Traffic engineers call them “forgiving” roads, designed to minimize the potential for injuries and deaths when motorists do something reckless. Like drive too fast through the heart of the city. 

But forgiving roads are also empowering roads. By their very design they encourage people to drive faster than the law or common sense dictates. That’s good for motorists in a hurry, but a potential death sentence if you are on foot and trying to cross the road.

Gainesville is among a growing number of cities that are beginning to adopt “Vision Zero” and “Complete Streets” policies aimed at calming traffic and making life safer for pedestrians and cyclists. But transportation funding priorities and road design standards are largely decided by state and federal officials. 

Listen, if jumbo jets were falling out of the sky at a rate of one per month they would certainly sit up and take notice in D.C. and Tallahassee. 

So why are so many dead pedestrians of so little concern?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

A land so strange

Jean Ribault was The First Coast’s First Tourist. 

The French explorer made landfall, on April 30, 1562, where the placid St. John’s empties into the Atlantic. There Ribault discovered a “faire cost, streching of a gret lenght,” and an “infenite number of highe and fayrc trees.” 

Hey, the guy was from out of state. 

But never mind that. The point is that, thanks to public ownership of the Talbot Islands and the primitive wetlands of the vast Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, much of the coastal landscape between Mayport to the south and Amelia Island to the north remains pretty much as Ribault must have found it: Miles of deserted beaches, wide stretches of palmetto scrublands broken up by forests of salt-sculpted, moss-draped oaks and stands of palms…all of it sandwiched between the ocean and a wonderland of twisting creeks, sloughs, mud flats and rookeries. 

Which is why this is one of my all time favorite Florida bike rides – a 40-mile trek up the Talbot Islands to Fernandina Beach and back. 

Start riding at the entrance to Little Talbot Island State Park, my all-time favorite winter camping ground.

For the first mile and a half you share A1A with some fairly fast moving traffic. But it’s got bike lanes and there are only two place, both narrow bridge crossings, where you briefly have to share the road with cars. Just be careful.

Mile 1.5: A quick right jog and you’re off the highway and onto the Timucuan Multi-Use Pathway. This is a beautifully designed off-road bike/ped path that runs the rest of the length of Big Talbot all the way to Nassau Sound. Winding and tree covered, it is a gorgeous trail.

Just after the 4 mile mark, you’ll arrive at Big Talbot Island Boneyard Beach. If you’re on a hybrid or fat tire bike you can ride down to the Boneyard  – so named for all of the fallen trees strewn along the shoreline like bleaching whale bones. If you’re on a road bike it’s still worth a short hike to the bluff overlook for the amazing view.

Leaving Boneyard Beach the paved trail soon becomes a wooden walkway. There are two covered bird watching shelters here overlooking a beautiful expanse of shallow blue water and mangrove swamps alive with – what else? – birds. 

Mile 5. You are crossing Nassau Sound on the long, slender Coastal Highway Bridge. To your right are awesome views of the Atlantic. To your left fishermen are lined up along the old George Crady bridge….long since closed off to traffic and now reserved for anglers. (I used to write about then-Rep. Crady when he was in the Florida Legislature, back in the ’70s. He would bring his guitar to the House floor to entertain fellow lawmakers while they were waiting for the leadership to hammer out a budget agreement.)

Now you are on Amelia Island, home of the rich and shameless. There is a separated bike path running up the southern stretch of the island, but using it necessitates frequent stops at the entrances of hotels, resorts and condo communities. I prefer to stay on A1A, which has perfectly adequate bike lanes.

Mile 9.6: Hang a rightcf447d95-09e9-4958-8fde-18663c56e8aa960c28f2-7028-4a00-84b8-3dcfad8ca4b6 on Burney Road and head to the beach. In this case, historic American Beach.

Why historic? Because in 1935, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, bought up this stretch of beach so his employees could vacation there. For decades it was one of the few Florida beaches where blacks could afford to live and play. Now it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a relatively modest and quiet beach community. 

Mile 11. You’re on the Amelia Island Parkway, a two-laned, low speed canopied road that takes you past the Ritz Carlton. Hey, stop for cocktails if you have a fat wallet. 

Mile 13: You’re on South Fletcher Ave., a two-laned road with narrow bike lanes that runs for several miles along the beach. But don’t count on seeing too much ocean…literally hundreds of beach houses block your view. 

Mile 18: That’s Ft. Clinch State Park on your right. I know I said this was a 40 mile ride (out and back) but if you want to chalk up still more miles take a detour through that long, skinny state park to its Civil War- era fort. The fort is spectacular and the views along the way are breathtaking. It’s about three miles in and three miles out if you go all the way. You might even catch sight of some of the wild horses that live on nearby Cumberland Island. 

After passing Ft. Clinch you’ll cross Egan’s Creek. That elegant tower off to the right is Amelia Lighthouse, one of the oldest in Florida. 

Mile 20: You have arrived in the heart of historic Fernandina Beach. A classic old Florida downtown. Need lunch? There are a ton of great restaurants and cafes. A beer maybe? The Palace claims to be the granddaddy of all Florida saloons. 

And just before you get to the waterfront stop at the Visitor’s Center in the old railroad station on Front Street. That gent sitting on the bench is David Levy Yulee. He doesn’t say much – heck he’s bronze after all – but Yulee has a fascinating history. He opened up the Florida frontier when he built a railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key. He was a U.S. Senator for a while, but also got tossed into prison for supporting the confederacy.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to visit the Shrimp Museum and take a walk on the waterfront. 

Then get on your bike again, turn around, and head back to Little Talbot. The return ride is every bit as scenic and spectacular.