LACOOCHEE — The 5-mile sidewalk runs along U.S. 301 past a gun smithy, George and Gladys' Bar-B-Q, a pasture, the Triple S Golf Ranch and a smattering of small houses.
John Benoit shook his head when he heard about it a year ago.
"A huge waste of taxpayer dollars," he said from outside the Farm Basket Market near the sidewalk's northern boundary at Mosstown Road. "They should have taken that money and used it for housing."
Tija Hills, 18, has a different take. She said the walkway will keep children safe and should have been built sooner. She remembers as a child having to avoid U.S. 301 because it lacked sidewalks.
"I wasn't even allowed up there. We used to take paths. We walked through people's yards," she said.
Whether a boondoggle or community resource, the miles-long sidewalk under construction on the east side of U.S. 301 is stirring debate in the tiny communities of Trilby and Lacoochee north of Dade City.
When complete, it will stretch from Mosstown to Pioneer Museum Road in Dade City, past a few churches and businesses, but mostly past open fields and trees.
Some homes are visible from the highway but most are tucked out of sight, which might prompt some to wonder whether the work makes sense.
"They say it's supposed to connect Lacoochee to Dade City and Zephyrhills, but nobody's going to walk to Zephyrhills," Benoit said.
The sidewalk is part of a $6.9 million repaving of U.S. 301 begun in mid May. It was included in the project out of safety concerns and after the county balked at contributing $1 million toward a 12-foot-wide trail. Officials opted instead to add sidewalks to both sides of the highway. The cost: $625,000, paid for with state Department of Transportation funds.
Work is expected to wrap up next summer, though on the highway's east side it will finish in about two months, Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Carson said.
Sabrina Schell, a waiter at George and Gladys' Bar-B-Q at U.S. 301 and Old Trilby Road, approves of the sidewalk.
From her vantage behind the counter she can glimpse the highway's grassy shoulder where folks traipse on their way to the restaurant or to a bus stop as cars and semitrailer trucks whoosh past. The road's speed limit is 55 mph.
"You have kids on bikes, babies in strollers," Schell said. "I think the fact they went as far as they did is a good thing. It will keep people off the side of the road."
Richard Riley, a spokesman for the Lacoochee-Trilby-Trilacoochee Steering Committee, a local civic group, agrees. He calls the sidewalk a sign of progress for the impoverished area.
"This is an infrastructure improvement. When you improve the infrastructure, it makes the area more defined and more available for economic development," he said. "I envision it will get a lot of use."
Parents pushing strollers and people heading to work are some who might use the sidewalk, as well as kids on bicycles and getting off of school buses. The buses routinely stop on the highway to drop off students.
A few years ago a man walking alongside the road was injured by a vehicle, said Cpl. David Hink, who has lived in the area for 25 years and is part of the Officer Friendly program, a partnership between the county and Pasco Sheriff's Office.
"Several people have been hit out there," he said.
Other beneficiaries include weekend cyclists who, once the work is finished, will be able to ride from the Hardy Trail in Dade City to the Withlacoochee Trail State Park and onto Hernando County.
"This is a godsend for this community," Riley said.
For Hills, who grew up in Lacoochee, the sidewalk means one thing in particular: Access for the residents to other homes and streets in the neighborhood, to church and the Dollar General store.
"A lot of people here don't have cars," she said. "When I was a kid I wasn't even allowed up there. Once in a while we would ride our bikes, but it was scary."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.