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Trails may form link among three counties

Now that the Pinellas Trail is more than just a fantasy, bicyclists, joggers and county planners are pushing for more. They want a recreational trail to link Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties for miles of worry-free recreation.

But that's a long way off, they say.

In the meantime, counties continue their own plans for recreational trails and the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) today is expected to endorse the concept of a regionwide trail.

"It would be great to travel on your bike all over the area," said Brian Smith, a planner with Pinellas County. "This is the beginning step of setting up a bicycle system to provide linkage between the three counties."

Hillsborough County has applied to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for grants for acquisition of abandoned railroad right of way in north-central Hillsborough County to begin the first phase of its trail.

Hillsborough County and a private, non-profit group, the Hillsborough Trails Inc., have patterned their plans after Pinellas County and Pinellas Trails Inc., which have built the first phase of a planned 47-mile trail through Pinellas County using abandoned railroad right of way.

"We're still an infant, so to speak," said Debbie Bischoff, principal planner for Hillsborough County and vice president of Hillsborough Trails. "It's all long-range planning right now, but ultimately we would like have a regional trail developed. We'd like to link up with Pinellas and Pasco, and Hernando is apparently working on something, too."

According to the MPO, Pasco County is interested in developing a trail to link up with trails in Pinellas and Hillsborough.

The state has $3.9-million to spend in 1992 to buy railroad right of way for trails. A state advisory board will recommend projects in early August and Bischoff said she hopes Hillsborough will know by then whether its application will be recommended for approval.

Converting railroads to recreational trails is a popular way of supplying recreational land in urban areas nationwide. In Hillsborough County, the trail would go through rural land as well as urban areas.

The first phase of the plan is a 9-mile path in north-central Hillsborough through Thonotosassa that would serve as the first leg of a necklace of trails throughout the county, Bischoff said.

Hillsborough does not have as much abandoned railroad as Pinellas County, Bischoff said, so planners will have to look at right of way along creeks, on county property and state-owned property, she said.

"Pinellas County is very lucky," she said. "Pinellas has it easy with that right of way. We'll have to get creative with easement along creeks and public land."