CLEARWATER — The mighty Pinellas Trail is 34 miles long, a luxurious 15-foot-wide asphalt path for bicyclists, runners and skaters — except in downtown Clearwater, where cyclists have shared a narrow sidewalk with pedestrians.
Now there's a new bike trail through downtown, courtesy of your federal tax dollars. It's on a milelong stretch of East Avenue, a side street that's a block west of Myrtle Avenue.
The Pinellas Trail used to be on the sidewalk there, but now the trail takes up the western half of the road. To make room for the trail, East Avenue has been turned into a one-way northbound street. What used to be a traffic lane for cars is now marked off for bicycles, with a series of white posts running down the middle of it.
"This is a unique animal. I don't know of any other location where this exists," said Paul Bertels, Clearwater's traffic operations manager.
Federal stimulus money paid for the $313,000 project. Although it was touted as a "shovel ready" project to get the federal funds, it got delayed for more than a year by construction work on the railroad tracks that run up the avenue.
"When the stimulus package came out in '09, we were asked to submit projects," Bertels said. "We never really thought this would get accepted, but the feds thoughts this was a fascinating project. It's the only one they know of that has four transportation modes in the same corridor (bicycles, pedestrians, cars and trains)."
The end result: It brings the Clearwater segment up to the standards of the rest of the Pinellas Trail. Up to 80,000 people each month use the trail, which runs from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.
"Just before we were supposed to start last January, the railroad notified us they were going to rip all the railroad ties out," Bertels said. CSX Railroad ended up taking half a year to do its repair work, irritating the city to no end.
The new bike trail was officially finished as of last week when transportation managers okayed the final touches.
Recently, the number of bicyclists on this part of the trail has increased noticeably.
"It's definitely picked up," said Mike Riordon, owner of City Cycle & Supply, a bike store along the trail at Court Street. "People used to turn around at Turner Street because they didn't want to go on the sidewalk. They never came through downtown Clearwater before."
The new trail is getting a mixed reaction from bicyclists.
"This is terrific. It's way, way better than dodging people on the sidewalk," said Tom Palladino of Clearwater, bicycling for exercise.
Others are still getting used to it. "I guess I didn't really notice it," said Chris Conroy of Largo, bicycling on the sidewalk on his way to work.
Riordon has heard a few complaints from drivers who can no longer drive south on East Avenue, but not many.
(A bit of trivia: Although it's in western Clearwater, East Avenue has that name because it was platted in the earliest days of the original settlement on Clearwater's bluff, and the road was on the eastern edge of that settlement.)
Bertels said southbound drivers have the option of using Myrtle Avenue, just a block away. "Traffic was very light on East Avenue anyway," he said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.