1. Transportation

Florida Coast-to-Coast bike and hiking trail segment opens today

ST. PETERSBURG — Jim Wedlake measures his cycling routes in the hundreds of miles.

Last year, he biked the Cross Florida Ride, a 168-mile trek from Cocoa Beach in Brevard County to Bayport Park in Spring Hill. It was beautiful, Wedlake said, but also hazardous cycling along heavily trafficked roads.

"There is that constant danger," he said. "People are not always accustomed to riders, or they're distracted by texting. We all see the accident reports in the paper. People are dying on bicycles."

That's part of the reason Wedlake said he's so excited about the Coast-to-Coast Connector Trail, a 250-mile multi-use trail that will run from downtown St. Petersburg to the Atlantic Coast when its is completed. Almost all of it will be isolated from automobile traffic, except at road crossings.

A critical 5-mile segment extending the Pinellas Trail to the Pasco border opens today. Another portion in Pasco is slated to begin construction next year and open in 2019. When complete, the two segments will fill a gap, linking the start of the Pinellas Trail to the Suncoast Trail's northern point in Hernando County, opening a continuous path stretching 100 miles.

The larger project running through nine counties in the middle of Florida and connecting the state's west and east coasts is still in various stages of planning. The state Department of Transportation has no firm timeline for its completion.

Though years of work remain until the trail is finished, the patience of bikers and runners will be rewarded, said Jim Wood, the DOT's chief planner of transportation development.

"We are working, and have been for the last few years, as diligently as we can to get this thing built," Wood said. "Because it's going to be a game-changing project for the state when it's done."

The DOT said its geographic information system showed in June that 62 percent of the connector trail is open to the public today. That figure will increase significantly in the fall, when a segment of the East Central Regional Rail Trail opens from the Brevard county line to Titusville.

Other areas remain in early planning stages, particularly in the center part of the state. That includes a roughly 30-mile stretch from Sumter County's western border that would run into Lake County. In the Sumter portion, the DOT is assessing how the trail might affect the surrounding area. Even when that study is completed in late 2018, the segment potentially faces multiple further steps before construction.

The connector trail receives funding from a combination of local, state and federal sources, Wood said. The state money comes through the DOT's Shared-Use Nonmotorized (SUN) Trail program, which develops paved trails that let people hike and bike long distances away from roads.

One of multiple state-funded projects, the Coast-to-Coast Trail has been tentatively appropriated about $27 million from SUN Trail through 2021. More construction remains after that year, but the DOT has not yet released cost estimates for remaining projects.

The trail's biggest proponents believe the finished product will bring a tourism boon that is worth the wait and cost. Tourism generates about a quarter of Florida's sales tax revenue, and many of those tourists spend time outdoors.

Sarah Kraum, a trails specialist for the Space Coast Transportation Planning Organization, said she has watched gastro pubs, breweries and other restaurants sprout up in downtown Titusville since the addition of a bike trail that connects to the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop and the East Coast Greenway trail system.

"It already is impacting the community," Kraum said. "The city has essentially embraced this as part of their identity. They are a trail town."

On the opposite coast, Bob Ironsmith, Dunedin's housing and economic development director, echoed the same point about the Pinellas Trail. He pointed to the growth of Lucky Lobster, a restaurant along the Pinellas Trail in downtown Dunedin that opened in January and quickly became a popular spot.

"It just brings a steady stream of people," Ironsmith said. "Those people start or end their day in Dunedin. They'll go get a drink or a bite to eat. We tie into (the trail) in every opportunity that we can."

Wedlake, a member of the board of directors for the Friends of the Pinellas Trail, said he has seen people come to Florida from around the country just to use it.

"The impact goes beyond cycling, because they're going to eat, sleep and buy things, and maybe even come back and bring friends," Wedlake said. "It's hard to measure, but it has a very big impact on the whole area."

Contact Jasper Scherer at Follow @jaspscherer.