Today thousands of people likely will turn out to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pinellas Trail. The 34-mile linear park is more than just an award-winning recreational amenity. It represents a triumph of optimism over pessimism and proves what a community can accomplish even in difficult times.
Before the trail, there were few safe places in traffic-packed Pinellas County to skate or ride a bike. No one understood that better than Bert Valery Jr., whose 17-year-old son was hit by a car and killed in 1983 as he rode his bike home from work on the narrow Belleair Causeway. The grief-stricken father pushed and prodded elected officials until they appointed a county bicycle advisory committee, and from that committee came the idea of building a long trail so people could jog and bike safely.
However, there appeared to be nowhere to put it in urbanized Pinellas. And there was no money for it, especially with the nation teetering on the edge of a recession. Officials doubted it would ever be built.
Then CSX announced it was discontinuing operations on most of its rail line that cut through the county. The corridor could be converted to a trail. Despite the economic anxiety that preceded the 1990-91 recession, Pinellas voters went to the polls in November 1989 and approved a 1-cent increase in the 6-cent sales tax to build roads and a recreational trail.
The trail's first segment, 5 miles from Largo to Seminole, opened on Dec. 1, 1990, in Taylor Park in Largo, where today's 20th anniversary celebration commences at 10 a.m. While the segment was popular with walkers and cyclists, it and the next few projects aroused controversy. Some residents fought the trail, fearing criminals would use it to access their homes. Some neighborhoods just didn't want "outsiders" around, an attitude that offended trail fans.
But as the trail grew, the fears lessened and its popularity exploded. Today the ribbon of asphalt unifies rather divides, crossing multiple jurisdictions as it meanders from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg. It's a goodwill highway, drawing about 80,000 users a month who represent all ages, backgrounds and physical abilities. They exercise, socialize and commute to work, shops or special events. The trail regularly wins accolades and is included in the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Hall of Fame.
Trail advocates aren't stopping now. They say that within the next 10 years, the trail will extend down the east side of the Pinellas peninsula to form a 75-mile loop. The current recession that darkens others' hopes for the future doesn't discourage them. So there is more than a trail to celebrate today. There is also the spirit of optimism that built it and keeps it growing.