Saturday, February 24, 2018
Transportation

A sidewalk to nowhere mayfind a destination

This is not often the case, but I know something that hardly anybody else does.

That's right. I'm a genuine expert on one particular subject in this county: the 3.8-mile stretch of sidewalk flanking State Road 50 between the Tampa Bay Times office and the Hess Express on the west edge of Brooksville.

I can be sure that few people have up-close, firsthand knowledge of this slab of concrete because just about every time I drive by, it's deserted.

I do see an occasional mountain bike rider, and Times photographer Octavio Jones managed to find a snowbird from a nearby mobile home park out for a stroll last week.

But I would bet that very few people have done what I did Tuesday evening — walk the entire stretch.

I did this during rush hour. The weather was perfect. The surface of the brand-new sidewalk is, of course, absolutely smooth.

All that's preventing folks from using this path — and on my walk I didn't see a soul, not on a bike or on foot, not on either side of the highway — is the simple fact that there is no place to go.

Not conveniently. Not by walking.

And as much as I'd like to claim unique knowledge of this fact, other people have noticed it, too.

For a while it seemed as if every other visitor to our office complained that these sidewalks were a complete waste of money.

I wouldn't go that far.

This is the Tampa Bay area, after all, one of the most lethal places in the country to walk or ride a bike.

Several years ago, the regional office of the state Department of Transportation started building sidewalks and marking bike lanes for every highway it resurfaced in urban areas. It was a wise move, one that will pay off in the future, as growth fills in empty spaces with potential sidewalk users.

Also, sidewalks are cheap, at least compared to roads. The nearly completed improvement of SR 50 in front of our office is just a resurfacing, not a widening. Yet the price of the sidewalks, $381,000, made up less than 10 percent of the job's total cost, $4.2 million.

Still, for this stretch of road and a few others in similarly empty parts of the county, sidewalks just don't seem to fit.

I walked past grazing cattle in wide-open pastures. I saw no real job centers other than Brooksville Regional Hospital, and it would take another hike just to get down its driveway. The only two real stores available on the north side of the road were the Hess and a RaceTrac, a blister-raising 2.8 miles apart.

Bikes are better for those kinds of distances, and we would have been better served with an asphalt bike path rather than a sidewalk on the south side of the highway.

The DOT looked into this and decided it wasn't feasible because of the roadside slopes, a spokeswoman told me. Okay, but I bet if the County Commission and residents had pushed the issue, the department could have found a way to get it done — and for not much more money than building a concrete sidewalk.

I'm not the only one who can picture a bike path there.

A group called the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation has drawn up a map showing how existing bike paths could be linked to form the Coast-to-Coast Connector between St. Petersburg and Titusville.

The Suncoast Trail, along the Suncoast Parkway, is part of this connector. So is the proposed Good Neighbor Trail, which will lead from Brooksville to the Withlacoochee State Trail.

And the section between those two trails, the one with the brand new sidewalks?

On the foundation's map, it's a red, dotted line labeled "Good Neighbor Gap."

Still not convinced? When the DOT started improving SR 44 in Citrus County last year, residents bombarded county commissioners with calls about the waste of building sidewalks on either side of the highway, most of which skirts the Withlacoochee State Forest.

After work had begun — after, in fact, a contractor had put 19 miles of sidewalk on one side of the highway — the commission convinced the DOT to stop the project and to build a bike path rather than a sidewalk on the other side of the road.

"Were trying to capitalize on the assets we have, the state forest and the conservation land, and to offer recreation activities that highlight those assets," said commission Chairman Joe Meek.

Long term, it's good for business, said Meek, a home builder.

Listen to him. Considering what he helped get done in his county, he's the real expert.

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