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Rails to Trails seeks support to the south

Proponents of a 47-mile biking and hiking trail through the North Suncoast have decided to bring their February meeting to Brooksville to generate support outside of environmentally conscious Citrus County. Don Barradas of Ridge Manor, who was elected president of Rails to Trails of the Withlacoochee at the group's meeting in January, said he scheduled this month's meeting in Brooksville to involve residents of Pasco and Hernando counties in the trail project.

"I'm trying to arouse public interest locally here because basically we've been winging it from Inverness," Barradas said. "If we can get good local interest and a good turnout here on Saturday, I would like to start holding our meeting here every other month."

About 200 people, most from Citrus County, have attended previous meetings of the group at an Inverness library. But so far, only Barradas and a lone resident of Pasco County have attended from the two southern counties.

So Barradas has scheduled a meeting at 1 p.m Saturday at Teen Hall in Brooksville, next to the band shell on Fort Dade Avenue.

Rails to Trails is a state-sponsored program in which abandoned rail lines are purchased and converted to recreational areas.

Environmentalists have envisioned a paved linear park running from Tallahassee to Key West with shorter trails in Pinellas and other counties away from the main line.

The state recently completed the purchase of a 47-mile CSX Transportation line from Gulf Junction to Trilby and a separate 14-mile track running from Hawthorne to Gainesville in Alachua County.

The Gulf Junction-to-Trilby segment would pass through Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties along the Withlacoochee River.

Organizers of Rails to Trails of the Withlacoochee say they need public support to show a strong local commitment to officials from the state Department of Natural Resources. Hopefully, that commitment would translate into state funds for clearing and paving the trail.

Similar groups have been organized in Pinellas County, Gainesville and Tallahassee, where the trails are closer to becoming reality.

Barradas said he also will use the meeting Saturday to discuss his idea of using inmate labor to help in the trail's construction. He is drafting a letter to the state Department of Corrections to ask the legality and possibility of using inmates to help grade and pave the trail when state money is available.

"If nothing else, we just want to get a group of people with common interests together to talk about the trail," Barradas said. "Hopefully we'll get a large turnout."

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