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In legislative session, make the cross-Florida bike trail a reality

A key section of the proposed bicycle trail across Florida is the Coast-to-Coast Connector, that will fill the gap from the north end of the Pinellas Trail to the bike paths in Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, above, in Pasco County.
A key section of the proposed bicycle trail across Florida is the Coast-to-Coast Connector, that will fill the gap from the north end of the Pinellas Trail to the bike paths in Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, above, in Pasco County.
Published Mar. 4, 2014

Here's the dream or, because it's more than that now, the plan:

A cyclist could climb on a bike in St. Petersburg and, given the energy and the time, ride all the way to Titusville. Other than at intersections, the rider wouldn't have to worry for a single moment about being mowed down by a car or truck.

In other words, pedaling 275 miles across the country's most lethal state for cyclists could be done in perfect safety.

And while taking in great scenery, especially — if I can say so without sounding too biased — in this part of Florida.

One key stretch of this trail, called the Coast-to-Coast Connector, will fill in the gap from the north end of the Pinellas Trail to the bike path that runs through the pines and palmettos of Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in Pasco County. The Good Neighbor Trail, which is partly built and fully funded, will also be part of the cross-Florida route; it takes riders through an especially pretty portion of the Withlacoochee State Forest east of Brooksville.

A planned section farther east will run through the true wilderness of the forest's Richloam Tract.

So it's easy to see that the trail would be very good for this region.

But the benefits extend to the entire state, a fact that is recognized by a variety of interests, including ones that are often in conflict.

Economic development folks believe this trail would increase investment in a broad swath of Central Florida.

Tourism advocates expect it to draw regional visitors to the towns traversed by the bike path and out-of-staters who want to take on the challenge of riding the entire trail.

Environmentalists support it because it would provide a green commuting option for people who live near the trail.

And, of course, cyclists are crazy about the idea.

"There's so much broad-based support," said Dennis Dix, Hernando County's transportation planning coordinator.

So, what's stopping it? The usual obstacle, money, though it's not a matter of whether it will be funded as much as when — whether it happens this year or over the next several.

I believe it should be sooner rather than later. I think it deserves to be a top priority and that its (roughly) estimated price of $42 million is a bargain by the standards of transportation projects.

I'd urge our local lawmakers to use their influence in the Legislature to support finishing the 72 miles needed to link existing or already planned sections of the trail.

I hope the same thing doesn't happen this year that happened last year, when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a $50 million appropriation for the trail.

There's reason to think it won't. The trail's main advocate in Tallahassee, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Winter Park, added it to the budget last year as a "member project," which is a nice term for "turkey," which in turn meant it was highly vulnerable to an early, violent death.

As chairman of a committee that sets transportation and economic development funding, Gardiner can make sure it goes through proper channels this session. He's also due to be the next Senate president, meaning that if he puts something in the budget, it's got a good chance of staying there.

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Which means it could pass quickly through the next step — from plan to reality.

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