ON THE PINELLAS TRAIL — Cars and trucks rush along Park Street while a long line of traffic idles on Tyrone Boulevard. Fumes from a tractor-trailer mingle with the aroma of grilled meat and Bloomin' Onions from the nearby Outback Steakhouse.
This intersection in St. Petersburg — one of Pinellas County's busiest — would ordinarily be a danger zone for pedestrians and cyclists. Instead, 20 feet above, cyclists zip along an overpass that's part of the Fred E. Marquis Pinellas Trail. Pedestrians and joggers, some pushing baby strollers, move up the overpass' ramps, safely out of reach of the county's traffic.
This week, the county will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the trail that serves as a haven for about 75,000 cyclists, walkers and joggers each month. The 47-mile path takes users from the suburban enclaves of East Lake on the north end to St. Petersburg's booming downtown waterfront to the south.
Credited with boosting the county's economy, the trail connects disparate neighborhoods and has revived downtowns in Dunedin and Tarpon Springs. As one of the country's early "rails to trails" projects, its popularity has inspired hundreds of similar projects across the nation.
This skinny strip of pavement has become so integral to the county's everyday life that it's easy to forget that it almost didn't happen.
It took a tragedy for it to even be conceived.
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Seventeen-year-old Bert Valery III was pedaling home on April 1, 1983, when he was hit by a car and killed while trying to cross the Belleair Causeway.
After his son's death, Bert Valery Jr. learned Florida and Tampa Bay ranked high in bike fatalities. Determined to make Pinellas a safer place to ride, he pushed for a bike and pedestrian advisory committee.
"Your heart's broken and you want to have something good come from it," Valery recalled.
The committee considered a recreational trail that could serve as a retreat for cyclists, runners and walkers. About the same time, CSX abandoned 34 miles of the Atlantic Coast railroad line in Pinellas. County officials later bought it for $1.
Officials initially considered a monorail on the corridor, but opted for a recreational trail, said Brian Smith, director of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization from 1980 to 1995.
The first section between Largo's Taylor Park and Seminole City Park was built with money from a drainage project. Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue and state and federal dollars financed later segments.
"It's probably the single most important project the county ever built," said Fred E. Marquis, who was the county administrator at the time and pushed for the trail. "It links communities together. It created a total resurgence of downtowns."
Exhibit A: Dunedin.
"Dunedin was a poster child for how the trail and the community can benefit from each other," Smith said.
Relaxing on a bench along a stretch of trail near Dunedin's Main Street one recent morning, Dan Gorey sipped coffee as his black cruiser bike leaned on a nearby palm tree. Tourists strolled in and out of shops on nearby Main Street. A line of schoolchildren walked along the trail behind their teacher like baby ducks.
A 64-year-old businessman from Chicago, Gorey bought a vacation home in north Clearwater last year that sits a hundred yards from the trail. It's one of the reasons he bought the house.
"I think it's just an incredible amenity," Gorey said. "When I'm here, I bike every day."
The trail's popularity helped revive Dunedin's downtown core, which by the 1980s had been abandoned by shoppers flocking to malls and big-box stores. The trail reversed that decline by bringing back pedestrians, said Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski.
"People saw downtown as destination rather than a go-pick-up-my-dry-cleaning kind of place," she said.
It's a similar scene in downtown Tarpon Springs, where the trail runs past the Historic Train Depot Museum, restaurants, bars and shops. Businesses on the sponge docks a few blocks to the west also benefit, said Mayor David Archie.
"It's been a boon to Tarpon Springs," he said.
In downtown St. Petersburg, Lycra-clad cyclists jockey for space with hipsters on fixed-gear bikes and senior citizens cruising to the store. The trail passes through the city's burgeoning Warehouse Arts District, an industrial area being transformed by new galleries and artistic work spaces like the Morean Center for Clay, which occupies a former train station.
The trail cuts through the most densely populated county in the state, giving it a citified feel unlike many recreational paths. The trail snakes past shopping centers and through countless neighborhoods, rich, poor and middle-class. Many of the homes back up to the trail, offering a backyard view on suburban life.
But there are nature scenes, too. Dolphins can be spotted from Cross Bayou Bridge that spans Boca Ciega Bay, the trail's longest bridge. Stretches of the trail split glades of live oaks in Palm Harbor and run along tidal marshes in Tarpon Springs.
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According to a survey last year of 2,513 users conducted by the county, the average person on the trail is a white male between 50 and 64 who rides his bike for exercise. He uses the trail three to seven times a week and rides between 2 and 10 miles each time.
But the report also highlighted how the trail connects people to work and school.
Of those surveyed at the downtown Clearwater location, 31 percent — nearly one in three — said they use the trail for commuting to work. In downtown St. Petersburg, 23 percent use the trail for work and in Gulfport, the figure was 14 percent.
After the trail opened in 1990, officials learned they had underestimated how many people would use it as a transit alternative. That meant the county could justify spending more money on it because it qualified as transit, said Smith, the former director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The trail's success has brought planners and advocates from around the nation to learn how to replicate the trail in their hometowns, said Scott Daniels, president of Pinellas Trail Inc., a nonprofit advisory and fundraising group that formed in 1988.
"The trail has been a great role model," Daniels said.
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Up in north county, riders eventually come across a brown sign with two words: TRAIL ENDS.
It's the marker of a dream still unrealized.
For years, the county has planned to connect this terminus near John Chesnut Sr. Park on East Lake Road to north St. Petersburg, creating a 75-mile loop that would unite the county.
The county has $12 million and recently failed for the third time to get a federal grant that would have covered the remaining $19 million needed. Advocates like Valery and Daniels say it's time for the county to look elsewhere — including its own transportation budget — for funding. Smith said that effort is under way.
Until then, cyclists and other users have only one option. They turn around and head back the way they came.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.