Health on wheels: Forging new paths

Headlines suggest Tampa Bay is a perilous place to ride a bike. That’s because at any time of day, riders are negotiating our famously dense traffic via rail-thin bike lanes just to get to a nearby Publix.

But while there’s no shortage of sometimes-fatal road incidents involving cyclists, an ambitious effort in Pinellas County to expand biking trails there could make it easier to get around. A series of extensions slated for the trail, including one that would link Pinellas to a trail leading to Titusville without ever traversing a perilous intersection, is underway.

The task of making Pinellas safer for cyclists, though, is not without sticking points.

Beyond the trail
At the moment, the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail is about 40 miles. It’s funded by Penny for Pinellas, a 1-percent sales tax levied within the county. In the 80s, a short stretch between Seminole and Largo was supposed to be merely a placeholder for a countywide, “Disney-esque” monorail loop that obviously never materialized, said Chip Haynes, who wrote 22 editions of a Pinellas Trail guidebook, and now sits on the county’s bicycle and pedestrian citizen advisory committee.

The trail attracts thousands of tourists as well as locals, and now there’s a network of city-funded trails hooking into it — or will hook into it if all goes as planned. The state and county are also planning on connecting Pinellas to other parts of the region and state.

Each stretch seems to be a point of contention to some and a cause for celebration to others, especially avid cyclists like Haynes.

“It’s always exciting when they open a new stretch of it,” he said.

Tying the county together

Among the more ambitious plans is the Duke Energy loop, which is still a little uncertain. The trail would run from around Weedon Island up to Palm Harbor, where it would meet with the Pinellas Trail’s northern limit, thereby completing a loop that circumnavigates the county.

“The loop is really critical to tying things together,” said Al Bartolotta, a planning manager with the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization. “That’s the number one priority in terms of countywide trail initiatives.”

Laid out along right-of-way beneath Duke Energy power lines, the project stalled over the years. First it was a Florida Power initiative, then got back-burnered when Progress Energy took over, and the county in recent months has worked out a deal with Duke.

But while the deal has been struck, there’s as yet not a way to fully pay for its construction. The county needs about $28 million, $17 million of which it was expecting to get through a federal TIGER Grant. County transportation officials have unsuccessfully applied for the grant a couple times already, but say they’re optimistic for a better outcome soon.

“We’ll continue to try for the grant,” Bartolotta said. “Hopefully we’ll have another shot...I think we’re getting close.”

If not, there are other ways for the county to pay for the project, such as asking voters to extend Penny for Pinellas past

its current 2020 sunset to help pay for the project, but it will take a while longer.

“We’re trying any way we can to make it happen,” he said.

Bridging the bay

As the Pinellas loop awaits funding, a state project that meets a demand for many cyclists — getting across Tampa Bay — nears completion. Since the 2009 shuttering of the Friendship Trailbridge, a pedestrian bridge paralleling the Gandy, there’s been no safe way to get to St. Pete and Tampa via bicycle. Come spring, a Florida Department of Transportation project will change that with the completion of a pedestrian bridge running alongside the Courtney Campbell Causeway. The Hillsborough side of the bridge is already finished.

Haynes said he hopes his fellow cyclists will nickname it “Shark Alley.”

Spurs: The good, the bad, the sticky

St. Pete, Clearwater and Gulfport are trying to make it easier for cyclists to reach sought-after places like the beaches.
Clearwater is hoping to create a trail system that takes cyclists from the Courtney Campbell out to Clearwater Beach, among other places.

St. Pete, meanwhile, has laid the groundwork for connecting trail riders to Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach, Fort De Soto and other destinations.

But there’s one length of proposed city trail, through St. Pete's Historic Roser Park neighborhood, that’s proven tricky.

The small, scenic residential area near downtown is supposed to be the site of a $2 million trail extension, the Historic Booker Creek Trail, that would connect Campbell Park to bicyle lanes downtown and the wider waterfront trail.

But some Roser Park residents don’t want it there. The city is using developer impact fees, which can only be spent within a set area, to build the trail, but some residents say paving through part of Roser Park would not only make the area less attractive, it would bring environmental degradation and crime to the neighborhood. 
“Any issue of change brings up the fear of crime, no matter what it is,” said longtime Roser Park resident Kai Warren, who is in favor of the original trail plan. He and other supporters feel the trail will bring needed exposure to the neighborhood, which despite its distinctive appearance and its status as the city’s first designated historic district remains relatively unknown to visitors.

Given the controversy, the city has gone back to the drawing board. St. Pete bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Cheryl Stacks said a new trail proposal should be complete in the coming weeks.

“We heard loud and clear that what had been proposed is not going to be acceptable to the majority of folks in the neighborhood,” Stacks said.

Bisecting the state by bicycle

As the trail network’s south county legs get sorted out, plans on a much grander scale are in progress at the north end.

A stretch of concrete paths in Pinellas and Pasco counties marks the beginning of a project that would link Florida’s two coasts by pedestrian trail. A $75 million state-level undertaking, the Coast-to-Coast Connector would comprise 250 miles of trail, much of which already exists.

“What makes this whole concept possible is that… 14 separate trails like the Pin Trail are already on the ground,” said Dale Allen, president of the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation.

Nearly 200 of the trail’s 250 miles are in place, save for a 30-mile stretch near Withlacoochee State Forest. The remaining gaps mostly lie between county lines, said Allen.

Although Governor Scott initially vetoed the project’s funding in 2013, he signed the bill last year, and with supporters like Senate President Andy Gardiner, a triathlete, it’s not likely to stall.

When the route is finished, a cyclist could reasonably make it across the state in under a week, traveling 40 or so miles a day and staying at inns along the way. Supporters say it’ll be an obvious tourism draw when it opens (slated for 2020).

“It’s not that hard to imagine going across Florida,” Allen said. “Heck, we’re already across.” 

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