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New Pinellas Trail stretch draws raves at opening

EAST LAKE — Mike Siebel bikes the Pinellas Trail four days a week and loops up and down the Suncoast Trail at least a couple of times every year. A 68-year-old cycling diehard, he was so eager for the opening of the 5-mile segment extending the Pinellas Trail to the Pasco border that he would often drive across Keystone Road, where the trail starts, just to check on its progress.

Siebel was one of more than 100 cyclists Thursday morning at the opening of that segment, not including countless others who skipped the ribbon cutting for an early ride on the trail. Their initial impressions of the new route were overwhelmingly positive.

"It's got to be the most scenic part of the Pinellas Trail," Siebel said. "There's literally no building out there to speak of. There's a few houses, but you're going through rolling countryside with ponds and lakes."

Elected officials, including Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long, attended the ribbon cutting, but it was the large turnout of cyclists that brought energy to the official opening. Many had been anticipating the moment since construction began more than a year ago.

The new trail begins at East Lake and Keystone roads, a little more than a mile east of Lake Tarpon's northern tip. It runs east along Keystone before turning north and continuing into Brooker Creek Preserve.

The trail ends at the Pasco County line, where construction will begin next year on a new segment that will finalize a 100-mile run from the start of the Pinellas Trail to the northern point of the Suncoast Trail in Hernando.

That entire stretch makes up a big chunk of the 250-mile-long Coast-to-Coast Connector Trail that will go from downtown St. Petersburg to the Atlantic Coast when it's finished. About 62 percent of the trail is already open to the public, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

Al Bartolotta lives in St. Petersburg, but as a longtime local cyclist he drove to East Lake for his first crack at the new trail. He said it's the kind of trail you want to bring your kids to.

"It's beautiful," he said. "You definitely see parts of Pinellas County that you don't normally see. It reminds me of old, rural Florida."

Joy Hancock, executive director of Bike Florida — a nonprofit that raises money to support bicycle safety education — said she and her husband live along the Pinellas Trail in Clearwater.

"One of our standard rides is, we'll ride right up to the (Keystone and East Lake) intersection up here, and then we would just turn around and go back," she said. "So now I'm super excited about being able to extend it and actually go out to the preserve."

David Prince, a Palm Harbor resident, bikes on the Pinellas Trail almost every day. He said he looks forward to biking the 100-mile continuous stretch of the Coast-to-Coast Trail that will open when the Pasco section is built.

In the meantime, he said, he will enjoy this new, more peaceful stretch of the trail.

"I like it better than going down East Lake because two lanes of traffic versus six lanes of traffic is much quieter," Prince said.

Construction of the trail, which cost $5.5 million, was funded by the Florida Legislature. Brian Smith, vice president of the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation, helped secure some of the segment's funding. He said riding it was a "different experience" compared to other parts of the Pinellas Trail.

"I'll admit it's probably one of the more beautiful sections of the trail," he said. "This goes for miles through natural area, which is unique in Pinellas County because it is mostly an urban area."

Smith said trails like this are important for connecting people from different communities around Pinellas and the greater Florida area.

"All the people on the trail are there irrespective of jurisdiction," he said. "The community becomes the people on the trail."

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