Maybe now they can change the name. “Gap’’ no longer seems accurate to describe a missing segment of a bicycle and pedestrian trail that keeps two counties disconnected.
The Starkey Gap, as it is known, is under construction. To commemorate the $2.6 million project, Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey and close to 40 bicyclists, government officials and passersby gathered at Longleaf last week for the ceremonial shoveling of dirt.
The trail is not named for the commissioner, incidentally, but for her husband’s pioneer ranching family.
The 2.4-mile bicycle and pedestrian path will stretch from the Pinellas County line to the Starkey Trail north of State Road 54. It follows the Duke Energy power line easement northward among the Trinity neighborhoods of Fox Hollow, Villages, Thousand Oaks East and Foxwood before bending slightly eastward toward SR 54 and then to a connection with Starkey Boulevard at the Longleaf neighborhood.
It is expected to be completed in the summer of 2019. The state Department of Transportation is financing the construction as part of the 250-mile Coast-to-Coast Connector linking St. Petersburg to Titusville on Florida’s east coast. Pasco County will maintain the new Starkey Gap trail once it is finished.
Completing the Starkey Gap creates 100 miles of uninterrupted bike and pedestrian paths tying the Pinellas Trail to the Starkey Trail and onward to Starkey Wilderness Trail and a link to the Suncoast Trail adjacent to the Suncoast Parkway.
When it's finished, people like Hank Baum, a 64-year-old a retiree living in the Foxwood neighborhood, will be able to leave his house and head south to downtown St. Petersburg or north to Crystal River. Baum, who owns five bicycles and has been peddling for 30 years, said he wouldn’t think of trying to navigate surface roads populated by distracted drivers.
“Riding the roads around here is not safe,’’ said Baum. “People are using their cars as phone booths.’’
His sentiment highlights a still-pending concern. Bicyclists and pedestrians will have to cross six-lane SR 54 to use the trail fully.
“Depends on the crossing of (SR) 54. If they make it convenient and safe, then, yes, I will take it,’’ said Mark Hardies of New Port Richey. He is the volunteer trail boss at the Starkey Wilderness Trail who arranges maintenance and group rides on that path.
Recognizing the safety concerns, county commissioners are asking the state Legislature for $4 million for a crossing elevated above SR 54. State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, plans to seek the appropriation in 2019.
“Bike trails. Putting in overpasses. I’m all in,’’ said Simpson.
The pitch for money doesn’t end with government construction dollars. Riders said the finished trail will be a boon to businesses.
Becky Alfonso, executive director of the Florida Bicycle Association, said the finished Starkey Gap trail will allow her to bike from her home in Oldsmar to Brooksville.
“This will be my rest stop,’’ she said, nodding toward the two restaurants, cycle shop and other stores in Longleaf’s business district.
That is what Laura Maggs is hoping. She is the manager of Trinity Cyclery, which opened two years ago on Town Avenue in Longleaf.
“We’ll have people stopping in to buy accessories or maybe small repairs. It definitely will bring in traffic,’’ said Maggs. “We’re excited. We’re going to need a bigger shop.’’
Contact C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.