UPPER TAMPA BAY — John Harrison lives in the Eagles, 7 miles from the Upper Tampa Bay Trail in northwest Hillsborough. The 66-year-old mountain biker hops on the trail two or three times a month. But if he wants to go for long jaunts, as he often does, he loads his bike onto his car and heads toward the 42-mile Suncoast Trail in Pasco or the 34-mile Pinellas Trail in Pinellas. With the Upper Tampa Bay Trail, which extends 7.25 miles from Memorial Highway to Peterson Road, "I cannot get sufficient mileage to do what I want," he said. As the county mulls how to spend $40-million in Community Investment Tax money, Harrison and others are jockeying for a slice of it. They're firing off e-mails to the county parks director, confronting commissioners at public hearings, and obtaining endorsements from local and regional planners — all part of a campaign they're waging to connect the Upper Tampa Bay Trail to the Suncoast. "We're just afraid that if we don't get part of that $40-million, there may not be other sources of funding available in the foreseeable future," said Stanley Kroh, chairman of the Hillsborough Greenways Committee.
It has never been a question of if the Upper Tampa Bay Trail will grow. The question has always been when.
Dozens of folks inside and outside northwest Hillsborough — most of them bicyclists — think the time is now. Completion of the Upper Tampa Bay Trail is the top-ranked regional priority of the West Central Florida MPO Chair's Coordinating Committee, which addresses transportation needs for Hillsborough, Citrus, Hernando, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.
It's also the No. 1 funding priority of the Hillsborough Greenways Committee, a residents group whose master plan for a countywide trail system helps to guide commissioners' funding decisions.
"The timing is so critical now because they're very soon going to be making a decision about the $40-million," said Kroh, who lives in South Tampa.
The $40-million was to pay for Championship Park, a massive sports complex backed by Commissioner Jim Norman that would have been built north of Plant City if commissioners hadn't voted the proposal down in October.
That project dead, the county decided to set aside the money for other purposes. The commission instructed the Hillsborough Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation to identify needed projects focusing on youth activities and Veterans Memorial Park on U.S. 301.
Supporters of the Upper Tampa Bay Trail put in their bid: $11.4-million. More than 300,000 people a year use it, county park records show. And the project qualifies for a federal grant, so $7-million of the requested amount can be reimbursed.
"Really, we're only talking about a little over $4-million to complete this link that is so regionally important," Kroh said.
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Say the county forks over the $11.4-million the committee requested. There's still the issue of operation and maintenance, said John Brill, spokesman for the county parks department.
"If we don't have any money to be able to support it," he said, "it's probably not good practice to build and open it.
"When you have a trail, you have operational issues. You have to have people and you have to have maintenance monies to help take care of that thing. It's going to go downhill in a hurry if it doesn't have maintenance."
For that reason and others, the Upper Tampa Bay Trail doesn't rank as high on a list the department has sent to commissioners for consideration.
In a tight budget cycle, there are more pressing needs: A $15-million youth soccer complex, $7-million in neighborhood park improvements, $6-million in lighting, parking and drainage improvements to athletic facilities, and heaps of other projects.
Rather than dole out $11.4-million to build the trail extension, the parks staff is recommending that the county spend $250,000 to study how to best to enhance all trails, and to update the committee's master plan, now 13 years old.
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Harrison, who is also on the committee, doesn't need another study to confirm what he already knows: The Upper Tampa Bay Trail leads nowhere.
Nearly a month ago, he participated in a 25-mile bike ride sponsored by the Suncoast Trail Advisory Group, a group based in Hillsborough.
"Had to go out to Pasco," he said. "Had we had the link, we could have gone all the way up on the Upper Tampa Bay Trail."
When finished, the trail will stretch 57 miles and through three counties: Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando.
"I would like to be able to go all the way up to Starkey (Wilderness) Park in Pasco County," Harrison said. "I cannot do that because the trail is not there."
During a public hearing at 2 p.m. Aug. 6, the county will discuss the proposed list of projects to be paid for with the $40-million.
Harrison said he plans to be there. "This," he said, "is the link to hook (the trails) together."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5303.