Tens of thousands of drivers speed past it every day on U.S. 19, many of them glancing up and wondering, "What the heck is that thing?" • The structure that's being built just south of Enterprise Road looks like it'll be some kind of bridge, although it's not nearly big enough to be one of the huge traffic overpasses that have been constructed along U.S. 19 in recent years. • Instead, it will be a pedestrian bridge and an important link in what will someday be a 70-mile bicycle trail looping all the way around Pinellas County.
For a few months after it's finished, though, it will temporarily be a sort of Bridge to Nowhere until the next segment of the bike trail is completed and hooks up to it.
"You certainly don't want it to be an overpass to nowhere," said County Commissioner Karen Seel, "so I'm pushing to get the trail done as soon as possible."
The pedestrian overpass will become part of the Progress Energy Trail, which will follow a lengthy power line corridor that cuts north-and-south through Clearwater and crosses U.S. 19 near Enterprise.
When this 20-mile trail is eventually finished, it will link up with the popular Pinellas Trail to circle the entire county.
"The Pinellas Trail serves western Pinellas County, and this trail will serve people in the eastern part of the county," said county planner Susan Miller. "It will help people get around without cars. It's going to connect all kinds of destinations — residential, retail, schools, employment."
Timing is everything
The Progress Energy Trail's wide asphalt path is being constructed in five stages. The first leg, completed last year, stretches about 21/2 miles from Belleair Road up to Bright House Networks Field.
The next segment, to be constructed next year, will stretch another 21/2 miles from the baseball park north to the U.S. 19 pedestrian bridge, which should be finished later this year.
Why is one being done before the other? Chalk it up to a fluke of scheduling.
The Florida Department of Transportation is in charge of the $4 million bridge, and this is where the project landed on its work schedule. Because of dropping construction costs, building a bridge right now is a lot cheaper than it was a few years ago.
"This is a good time to be doing the work," Seel said. "At one point, the cost had ballooned to $7 million. The timing is saving some money."
At the same time, Progress Energy is in charge of constructing the trail along its power line easement. It's building the bike path for the county, which is paying for it with Penny for Pinellas sales taxes.
A consultant is designing the trail's next section and will shepherd it though a permitting process. Progress Energy should advertise for construction bids by the end of the year, and the work should take about six months, said Peter Yauch, the county's director of public works and transportation.
In the interim, the bridge will connect to sidewalks on both sides of U.S. 19 and function as a pedestrian overpass.
"It's desirable to put the overpass in first," said Pinellas planning director Brian Smith.
If the bike trail was finished before the bridge, then bicyclists would be trying to cross busy U.S. 19.
"The whole point of the Pinellas Trail system in the first place is to have a safe place to travel by bike," said Smith, who added that most trips on the Pinellas Trail aren't for recreation but instead are for purposes like shopping, work or school.
The big loop
In the future, the Progress Energy Trail will stretch farther north and south. The goal is to have it done in a decade, although those plans aren't funded yet.
Running south from Belleair Road, the trail will cross U.S. 19 again, pass underneath Ulmerton Road, and link up with the Pinellas Trail system around Weedon Island in St. Petersburg.
Heading north, it will follow the power line corridor to connect with a trail running alongside East Lake Road, which will link to a Pinellas Trail extension along Keystone Road.
In Clearwater, the trail already connects to the Ream Wilson East-West Trail, which will one day stretch from the beach to Tampa Bay, Clearwater officials say. Much of that trail will eventually run alongside Druid Road, said Felicia Leonard, who oversees Clearwater's bicycle and pedestrian program.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.