TAMPA — As rain drizzled down and wind whipped off the water Saturday morning, onlookers gathered near the Courtney Campbell Trail to celebrate the partial completion of a project years in the making.
Open since early September, the first segment of the trail is a nearly 6-mile section from Rocky Point Road to the Hillsborough County line, including the only motorless bridge over Tampa Bay since the Friendship Trail Bridge, adjacent to the Gandy Bridge, closed in 2008.
Construction on Phase 2, a 3-mile stretch between the Hillsborough-Pinellas border and Bayshore Boulevard in Clearwater, is scheduled to begin in January.
Once completed, the trail will connect to several nearby recreational areas in both counties, yoking a growing network of pedestrian trails.
"This connection between Clearwater and Tampa is not just concrete and asphalt," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "It is symbolic and substantive. It will allow us to do things we never thought we could do before."
Built by the Florida Department of Transportation for $14.6 million, the project was funded by federal enhancement money set aside for pedestrian projects.
Hillsborough County invested $1.2 million for benches, shade structures, bike racks and other amenities along the trail. Tampa is building and will maintain restrooms and a concession stand at Ben T. Davis Beach that are expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Bicycle and paddle board rentals could be featured at the park in the future.
Despite the chilly and wet weather Saturday morning, joggers tackled the trail alongside bicyclists and dog walkers.
James and Kristin Bold of Tampa Palms hit the trail to take advantage of the incline provided by a bridge that climbs 45 feet above water.
"It's great to run by the water; it's much more scenic than you usually can find," James Bold said. Plus, it's an easy spot for them to do hill repeats in an otherwise flat area.
Allison Schwartz and her boyfriend, Kevin Craft, are serious cyclists who discovered the lure of the new trail before Saturday's grand opening.
The duo, both 29, bike from their Harbour Island home to Honeymoon Island or Clearwater Beach. They've completed several triathlons and plan to do the Bone Island Triathlon in January in Key West. To train, they ride 20 to 40 miles three times a week. It's hard to find routes to get in that many miles.
Before the Courtney Campbell Trail was finished, they rode to it but Schwartz put her foot down.
"I refused to go across that bridge with the cars," Schwartz said. The road has 2-foot-wide shoulders, a constant stream of cars zipping by at 60 mph on one side and a short concrete wall on the other, overlooking the water.
With the new pedestrian bridge, they sometimes ride from home to the beach, where they do an ocean swim and then run.
"Now that the bike trail is there," Schwartz said, "I'm game."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.