South Coast Greenway trail may be back on track
TAMPA - South Hillsborough County residents have been waiting 18 years for a proposed greenway trail that would connect the Little Manatee River Preserve and Gibsonton.
Money for the first phase of the South Coast Greenway was put on hold several years ago when the economic downturn forced county commissioners to slash spending. But due to intense lobbying by south county residents, it looks like that money will be restored.
County commission Chairman Ken Hagan said this week he expects commissioners to approve $2.5 million for the first phase of the greenway when they meet Wednesday. Hagan noted that the trail has been on different county transportation and recreation plans since 1995.
"It's beyond time for the county to financially commit to the project," Hagan said Wednesday.
The trail is to be built in six segments and stretch 10 miles along the west side of Interstate 75 when completed. The first phase would start at 19th Avenue Northeast and run south to College Avenue. Supporters say it will link a number of county nature preserves as well as several schools, shopping areas and Hillsborough Community College's Southshore Campus.
"You can have kids in Gibsonton ride their bike quickly to East Lake High School and Eisenhower junior high," said Mike Peterson, a south Hillsborough attorney and businessman. "But if they have something they want to participate in at Lennard High School, it's not impossible to ride there."
Though lean budgets have force the county to delay new greenway segments in recent years, they are extremely popular. The Upper Tampa Bay Trail, the county's longest greenway, saw attendance rise from 168,007 two years ago to 210,615 last year, according to Forest Turbiville, division manager for the county parks department.
Commissioner Sandy Murman, whose district includes part of south county, said the new trail makes sense for a lot of reasons, including public safety and alternative transportation for residents of an area that was devastated by the economic downturn. Hillsborough County is routinely rated as one of the most dangerous places in the country for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Murman, a member of the board that oversees the HART bus system, said the agency plans to improve bus service in south Hillsborough. When that happens, Murman said, bicyclists could use the trail to link up with "circulator buses" that would allow them to travel to shopping centers or schools without entering dangerous highways.
"These people haven't had those kind of amenities before in south county," Murman said. "They rely on their cars and it's an area that's been hit hard by the economy, and a lot of people don't have two cars in the garage."
Ruskin Sierra Club member Mariella Smith helped revive the effort to fund the trail in June by organizing an e-mail writing campaign targeting commissioners. In the form letter she wrote for people to copy to the board, Smith pointed out that all six segments of the trail are prioritized in the Metropolitan Planning Organization's 2035 "cost affordable" projects. The MPO is the county's transportation planning agency.
Only the first trail segment is mentioned in the proposed 2014 county budget under "opportunities." The letter urged commissioners to move that first phase into the "funded projects" category.
"This has been something that's been promised to south county communities since 1995," Smith said. "We only do the budget every two years; if we keep kicking this down the road we won't ever be fulfilling that promise and that plan we all signed on to."
Smith said the first phase is a good starting point because it will link up with a developer-funded phase two segment near the Waterset planned community. The initial phase will also complement soon-to-be built bike lanes on Shell Point Road and 19th Avenue, which will bisect the trail, Smith said.
Smith said support for the greenway is broad-based, uniting environmentalists with south county business interests. Both groups see completion of the trail as vital to the area's aspirations to become a destination for eco-tourism.
The proposed route runs alongside several large nature preserves purchased through the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, commonly known as ELAPP.
"There are other feeder trials, and this is the north-south spine for recreation trails that lead off to the ELAPP sites," Peterson, the lawyer, said. "(Tourists) might be able to find lodging somewhere near this trail, then spend the day exploring the trail and the ELAPP property."
If the commission does fund the project Wednesday, it will take nine to 12 months for design and permitting the first phase and another six to nine months to build it, said Turbiville with the parks department.
That's a long time for people like Don Schings, former director of the Sun City Center Community Association and a longtime supporter of the trail.
"I know the county has dollar problems," Schings said, "but they've done work on some of the other trails and we're kind of waiting down here."