$50 million trail would go from St. Pete to Titusville
ST. PETERSBURG -
The Pinellas Trail could become the first leg in a 275-mile bike and walking path stretching from St. Petersburg to Titusville.
State lawmakers recently approved $50 million for the Coast to Coast Connector, which will link more than 200 miles of existing bike paths.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection's goal is to bridge seven gaps among more than a dozen regional trails that snake across Central Florida. Collectively, the gaps cover 72 miles.
Once completed, the trail would be longest continuous bike path in Florida and among the biggest in the nation.
Money for the project would come from the state's transportation trust fund, with the aim of increasing recreational options, tourism and economic development.
“If you have a large trail that doesn't have bits and pieces missing from it, it really becomes an attraction,” said Patrick Gillespie, a DEP spokesman.
“Then you've got people staying in those communities, spending money in those communities, and that's where you get your economic impact.”
Critics will question whether building a biking and walking trail is the type of transportation project the state should be funding, or if a $50 million investment in economic development would have a bigger impacted if spent on something else.
The trail's advocates say biking trails bring proven health benefits to residents, spur business in cities along their routes and can become destinations for a growing number of active tourists.
Its value in Florida's $74 billion budget will ultimately be assessed by Gov. Rick Scott, who did not recommend the project in his proposed budget and could still veto it.
The $50 million set aside to build the trail would be rolled out over five years in $10 million increments.
Most of the money would go toward acquiring parcels of land needed to link various pieces of the trail.
The Connector is a top priority in the DEP's Florida Greenways and Trails System plan, which ultimately seeks to build a network of walking and biking trails across the state.
It would link the Pinellas Trail to Starkey Trail in Pasco County and the Good Neighbor Trail in Hernando County before heading eastward, where it will eventually connect with the popular West Orange Trail near Orlando and then the Atlantic coast.
The potential benefit of connecting more communities with a trail system can be seen in Dunedin, supporters say.
Business occupancy in the small downtown area grew from 30 percent in the 1980s to nearly 100 percent since the Pinellas Trail cut through its Main Street in 1991, according to the city's economic development office.
While it's impossible to say how much the trail contributed to downtown Dunedin's renaissance, the city's economic development director says it's been a prime catalyst.
“Where the trail hits downtown is ground zero,” said Robert Ironsmith.
“It's helped build what downtown is today.”
Cyclists ride in from out of town and pop into local bars and restaurants. Some even stay overnight.
Demand has grown for homes near the trail and the lively downtown among people who consider access to it a major part of their quality of life.
Property values for homes adjacent to the trail were growing at a faster clip than similar properties further away, according to a 2001 study conducted by the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“Quality of life is very important and that [bike trail] is something that's very important to a lot of people,” said Joe Farrell, director of public affairs for the Pinellas County Realtor Organization.
State officials hope the Coast to Coast Connector can achieve comparable success on a grander scale.
Long bicycle routes are a major tourist draw in states such as Colorado, Minnesota and particularly Iowa, which draws more than 10,000 people each year for a weeklong bicycle trek across the state.
The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa not only generates spending during the event; recreational bicycling generates an estimated $364 million in economic impact each year, according to a study last year by the University of Northern Iowa's sustainable tourism and environment program.
“Bicycle touring is one the most popular outdoor recreation activities in the country,” said Bill Nesper of the League of American Bicyclists.
At 275 miles, Florida's Coast to Coast Connector would stand out among the nation's longest bicycling trails, such as the 225-mile Katy Trail State Park in Missouri or the Great Allegheny Passage, a popular 152-mile route between Pittsburgh, Pa., and Cumberland, Md.
The trail could still face roadblocks, as Florida's transportation funds are tied to the federal transit bill, which will expire while the Connector is still being built over the next five years.
“We'll have to have this entire debate again before this is completed. There have been transit bills saying you can't spend any money on trails,” said Ken Bryan, director of the Florida chapter of the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
Debates over whether transit dollars should pay for bike trails instead of highway resurfacing are likely to continue, but states such as Florida have gradually been moving toward a wider view of the impact these nontraditional projects can have, said Jason Bittner, director of the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research.
“We spend transportation dollars to encourage tourism, to facilitate the flow of goods and people, and all of these investments play roles in a much larger package,” he said.