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TAMPA BIKE TRAIL MAY GET A KEY LINK

An Upper Tampa Bay Trail add-on would link to the Suncoast Trail.

Allen Pollitt takes a45-minute bike ride each day along the Upper Tampa Bay Trail, but he wouldn't mind a change of scenery.

The 7.5-mile trail meanders along Rocky Creek from Old Memorial Highway, then turns north along the Veterans Expressway before veering northwest to Peterson Road Park, its last stop.

Pollitt, 46, of Westchase has used the trail for the past few years to burn off stress from his supply management job.

"If they extended it, I would probably ride it," he said. "It would be nice to see some new scenery and terrain."

He might get his wish, though it could take a few years.

For the past decade, parks officials have talked about extending the Upper Tampa Bay Trail 8 miles north from Peterson Road Park to Lutz-Lake Fern Road and the Suncoast Parkway, the southern end of the 41-mile Suncoast Trail.

Filling that gap would give cyclists and others on the Upper Tampa Bay Trail direct access to the Suncoast Trail's continuous path to the Citrus County line.

Officials say they're making progress in closing the gap.

They've removed a long-standing stumbling block to the plan, and crews will break ground in the spring or summer on one of three planned extensions - a 4.2-mile stretch running west and south from Lutz-Lake Fern Road and the Suncoast Parkway. The project will take about a year.

"Finishing this trail is one of our top priorities," said Mark Thornton, the Hillsborough County parks director. "We've been buying and building trails for a period of years. Now our focus is on the Upper Tampa Bay Trail."

Officials thought they already had devised a route to the Suncoast, but ran into objections from two property owners who refused to allow the trail on their lands east of Gunn Highway.

Now, Thornton said, officials are proposing to take the trail west to Lake Rogers Park, owned by St. Petersburg but managed by Hillsborough County, and then east again, avoiding the property owners altogether.

They're waiting on permission from the city to use the park, but Thornton said he doesn't foresee any problems.

There is a catch, though. Using Lake Rogers Park will mean extending the gap to about 10 miles, instead of 8, and risk boosting the project's overall $10 million cost.

In the long run, though, creating a longer trail will offer more recreational area and could benefit more people, Thornton said. About 100,000 people use the trail each year.

Meanwhile, officials are focused on the first extension, which will run 4.2 miles west and south from Lutz-Lake Fern Road.

Project manager Bill Hand said the county has acquired all the land and set aside $2.2 million of the project's $5 million cost.

Parks officials want to make up the difference with a $630,000 state grant and by redirecting funds left over from other capital projects, which will require approval from county commissioners.

The plan calls for a trailhead with restrooms and parking on Lutz-Lake Fern Road about a quarter mile west of the Suncoast Parkway.

From that point, the trail will run west along Lutz-Lake Fern for about a mile and a half and then south.

Most of the 12-foot-wide path will be paved asphalt, but about a quarter-mile will be an elevated boardwalk to protect wetlands.

The other two extensions have not been scheduled, though the next one probably will run north and west from Peterson Road Park, which is just east of Gunn Highway, to Lake Rogers Park.

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