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State must help Dade City in its quest for bicycle trail

Bicycling could become a key part of Dade City's identity.

Already home to antiques, kumquats and the county fair, the city is also the site of the annual Dade Battle of Brilliance bike race. Meanwhile, private corporations, including the Times, are organizing a return of a bicycle tour through east Pasco in March.

Laura Beagles, assistant to the city manager in Dade City, envisions a day when bicycle riders will start at a trailhead in Ridge Manor and pedal south along the Withlacoochee trail and into the city center to eat and peruse the downtown shops.

Just one problem: The route's initial stage in Dade City just hit a significant snag. Engineering consultants working for the state Department of Transportation found arsenic along the abandoned railroad line that is to serve as the bike corridor through town.

DOT representatives told Times staff writer Molly Moorhead that they hope to offer alternatives within the next month, but the environmental concerns and escalating costs could doom the notion of a 1-mile trail from Eighth Street at Church Avenue to just beyond Fairfield Avenue.

A little more than $300,000 has been set aside for the project, but the alternatives _ bringing in dirt to raise the elevation or building a boardwalk _ will push up the price.

Cash-starved Dade City isn't expected to be able to contribute construction funding because of more pressing needs, and the state can't promise it can make up the shortfall.

It is a disappointing development, and we encourage the DOT to be diligent in trying to keep the project alive. It is particularly frustrating for Dade City, which has had limited success in expanding its recreational opportunities.

The notion of the Rails to Trails program coming to Dade City surfaced in 1998. The city owns 2.2 miles of right of way on which the bike trail is supposed to sit, and the Eighth Street to Fairfield Avenue trek is just the start.

Enthusiasts envision the trail continuing north to Lock Street and then traveling 5 miles to Trilby and the Withlacoochee River Park, where it would link to the existing 46-mile state trail through Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

Potential users abound. Bicycling is a national recreation. The National Sporting Goods Association estimated 41.4-million Americans age 7 or older rode a bicycle six times or more in 2002. The sale of bicycles and accessories is a $5-billion-a-year industry, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.

Long-range plans in Pasco County call for a $36-million bicycle and pedestrian path network across the county constructed along natural gas and water transmission lines and as part of highway projects.

The Penny for Pasco sales tax includes $3-million to build a bicycle path to connect New Port Richey to the Starkey Wilderness Park and the Suncoast Parkway.

The county added bike racks to its public buses as part of the national emphasis on alternative transportation methods.

Bicycling opportunities should be encouraged considering the popularity of the trail along the Suncoast Parkway and the natural fit with local attempts to capitalize on ecotourism and nature-based recreational opportunities.

Given the investments elsewhere, Dade City shouldn't be left spinning its wheels.