It's hard to believe, with up to 80,000 people a month riding their bikes or running or skating along its 15-foot-wide paths, but it's true: Two decades ago the Pinellas Trail seemed like an iffy idea. Homeowners feared it would funnel crime into their neighborhoods. Railroad officials didn't want to sell the land to Pinellas County. Support from county commissioners was so tepid that the staff had to slide the financing by them as something else. These days, the trail is a nationally recognized award winner, and county officials are gearing up for a big 20th anniversary celebration on Saturday.
Over time, the trail itself has changed as more and more people have used it, say county officials. And that skinny strip of pavement has changed the towns and suburbs through which it passed, said Fred Marquis, the former county administrator for whom the trail is named.
"It really united the county," Marquis said.
Bert Valery Jr. has seen what the trail has become. It brings a tear to his eye.
It was his family's tragedy -— one that he still feels as sharply today as when it happened — that started the trail rolling.
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On April 1, 1983, Bert Valery III was 17 years old. His family nickname was "Little Bert" even though he stood 6 feet 3. His father regarded him as his pride and joy.
Little Bert had an after-school job at Albertsons. On that spring evening he was riding his bike home from work, crossing the Belleair Causeway, when a car hit and killed him.
"It crushed us, to say the least," Valery said.
The driver did not even get a ticket, he said.
Frustrated and angry, Valery began looking into the issue of bike safety.
The Indian Rocks Beach insurance agent learned that Florida routinely ranked at or near the top nationally for bicycle fatalities. Valery swore to do something. He made the rounds of town councils, building support for forming a bicycle advisory committee to make this a safer place to ride.
One idea the committee pursued: building a recreational trail where people could ride without worrying about cars and trucks zooming by. Perhaps it could run along the railroad corridor, the committee said. But initially no one was interested, Valery said.
Then, in 1986 the Jacksonville-based CSX railroad announced that the rail line that had been around since St. Petersburg was founded would be discontinued. Rather than let it become a dumping ground, county officials decided a recreational trail now seemed feasible.
But there was a problem. Pinellas officials could not get the railroad to agree to sell the whole route from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg. Instead of making a package deal, Marquis said, the railroad's real estate office kept selling off small chunks to adjacent landowners.
Marquis also served as a general in the Florida National Guard. The railroad president, also a guardsman, was under his command. That gave Marquis the chance to pitch the trail idea to him — and he liked it.
"He goes back and gives the orders," Marquis said. "It changed the whole complexion of the project."
The project still had a money problem, though. The solution determined where the first leg would be built.
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In November 1989, voters approved the Penny for Pinellas, a 1-cent increase in the sales tax used to fund infrastructure improvements. But until the tax money started rolling in, Pinellas County had no way to pay for the first leg, Marquis said.
The commissioners weren't keen on adding a project that might siphon money away from another project. So Marquis got creative.
The county budget did have money for drainage improvements in the Seminole area, he said. As a result, that's where the county built the first 5-mile leg of the trail, using some of the drainage money, he said.
The official opening was Dec. 1, 1990, a cool, sunny Saturday morning. Thousands of people turned out to run, bike, walk and skate the first segment from Largo's Taylor Park to Seminole City Park.
As more segments were built, the trail became extremely popular — and its usage changed. Although it was built for recreation, explained Brian Smith of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a survey found people were using it for something other than a workout.
"A lot of the people were going somewhere," he said. "They were going to work, or shopping or on social trips. We had built a transportation facility."
That means "it's taking people off the regular roads," helping to ease traffic gridlock, said Scott Daniels, who has spent 22 years working for Pinellas Trails Inc.
That discovery enabled the county to apply for federal transportation grants for overpasses and other trail-boosting projects.
By the time the 34-mile trail was completed from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, the county had spent about $9 million from Penny for Pinellas, while state and federal funding boosted the total to $39 million, Smith said.
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Marquis and Smith pointed to Dunedin as an example of how the trail has changed Pinellas.
When construction began on the trail, Marquis said, "their downtown was almost non-existent, because so much of it was vacant." Now it has a thriving business district catering to the thousands of people who pass through on the trail, he said.
The trail's construction also exposed a threat to a neighborhood. Crews building a segment near Tyrone Square Mall discovered pollution from the old Raytheon plant.
Not every change wrought by the trail has been a good one. As some homeowners feared, the trail has been the scene of quite a few crimes — robberies and assaults mostly.
The highest-profile crime came in 1993, when a burglar from Clearwater bicycled the trail to Belleair to break into homes. When he was caught, he shot the police officer in the leg and pedaled away as the officer died. However, a study done in the 1990s found that most of the crime was "generally related to the character of the surrounding area," rather than the presence of the trail.
"There are minimal problems on the trail," Daniels said, "especially compared to what happens in the rest of the county."
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After 20 years, the trail is still not complete. A major missing link is under construction now as part of the expansion of Keystone Road through the East Lake area. That will tie the trail's Tarpon Springs end to East Lake/McMullen-Booth Road, as well as providing access to the Brooker Creek Preserve.
"People in East Lake have been waiting for that for a long time," Daniels said.
By tying into McMullen-Booth Road, Smith said, the trail is well on its way to circling the entire county. The schedule calls for completing the whole 75-mile loop route by 2020, he said.
That would, of course, be just in time for the 30th anniversary.