ODESSA — A $4 million project to extend the Upper Tampa Bay Trail is back on track to try to create a recreational path that leads north all the way to the Suncoast Parkway.
County officials announced this month that the often-delayed plan will launch late this year or in early 2013. It will run along the western edge of the Brooker Creek Headwaters Nature Preserve from Van Dyke Road north to Lutz-Lake Fern Road, then turn east to the Suncoast Parkway, where the Suncoast Trail begins.
For joggers and cyclists, the good news is that the project will add 4.35 miles to the trail system.
The bad news is that officials still haven't solved a years-old dilemma to close a 4-mile gap in the trail plan from Van Dyke to Peterson Road Park, where the path now ends.
That means users south of Peterson will be disconnected from the new extension.
"What I wanted to see happen is for it to go north of Peterson Road Park, but every little bit helps," said Debbie Voiles, founder of the Run Tampa club. "It's a really beautiful area."
The extension calls for a 12-foot-wide path, a 53-space parking lot, bathroom facilities and picnic shelters on Lutz-Lake Fern about a mile west of the Suncoast Parkway. Watering stations will be placed every 2 miles.
The project will take about 13 months to complete, Hillsborough County public works officials said.
Voiles, 58, who competes in triathlons and coaches aspiring runners, said the new stretch through Brooker with its live oaks, pines and other trees will offer a picturesque and functional respite for runners.
"It's a really beautiful area, and in Florida if you can run under a canopy of trees from April to October you'll be able to run a lot more comfortably," she said.
Cyclists won't be allowed to pedal off the paved trail and through the nature preserve, but bike stands will be available so they can park and walk through it, said Richard Sanders, project manager for the public works department.
In 2002, Hillsborough officials started seeking ways to extend the trail to Lutz-Lake Fern and the Suncoast Trail in hopes of creating a continuous 57-mile ribbon through Hillsborough and Pasco counties and part of Hernando. Commissioners approved the extension plan in 2005.
The Upper Tampa Bay Trail attracts about 100,000 people yearly. It begins at Memorial Highway near the Helen Davis Elementary School and extends north 7.5 miles to Peterson near Gunn Highway.
But efforts to continue the extension just north at Peterson Road were stymied when officials couldn't secure all the necessary property for their projected route. About three years ago, Hillsborough County commissioners scrapped the idea, which involved pursuing strips of property between Cosme and Copeland roads, north of Peterson, because land owners in that area had other plans and didn't want to sell.
The land acquisition issues, coupled with the economic downturn, led officials to put the trail's extension on the back burner. With tax rolls dwindling, they opted to trim the project's construction budget from $5 million to $2 million and to shelve it until more money became available.
The county is moving forward now, however, because of assurances it received from the Florida Department of Transportation and the Southwest Florida Water Management District of a $2 million infusion for the trail. Officials expect to have that cash in hand by October and to select a contractor for the extension soon after that.
They are also mulling alternate route configurations and will hire a consultant next year to figure out the best way to connect Van Dyke and Peterson, Sanders said.
Brian Eckman, who owns the Carrollwood Bicycle Emporium, said he has waited years as the extension plan has crept forward only to be delayed. Like Voiles, he sees this latest project as a first step toward linking the two trails.
"Cross your fingers we don't hit any snags between now and when it breaks ground," he said.
Eckman often takes cycling groups to the Upper Tampa Bay Trail from his shop on N Dale Mabry Highway. But because the trail is only 7.5 miles long, the cyclists have to double-back several times in order to get a proper workout.
The trail can get crowded with runners, walkers and inline skaters, especially on weekends, which can make the cycling treks difficult. Extending the route to the Suncoast would stretch out the crowds and attract more cyclists, Eckman said.
Sanders agrees and said the county is working to connect the two trails, but it could be years before that happens because of funding and difficulty in finding a route.
"At this point, there's no real rush to get to that," he said. "There's no additional funding beyond this (current) project," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected]