Anyone who doubts the changing perception of bike trails in Florida needs only to look at the Coast to Coast Connector.
With the backing of the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott, the state Department of Transportation has set aside $18.8 million this year for the project, which would link existing trails to create a 275-mile cycling path from St. Petersburg to Titusville.
The money includes $5.4 million to help close gaps in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.
And with a strong advocate for the project, state Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, positioned as the incoming Senate president, it seems likely that the $57 million project will continue to receive support in Tallahassee.
"Because of the political weight behind it, this thing is moving," said Dennis Dix, Hernando County's transportation planning coordinator.
"It's become mainstream," Dix said of support for cycling trails. "It's been embraced by the cycling and recreation community and by economic development people. Transportation planners like it; health advocates like it. … It's not just the old concept that bikes are toys, and who cares."
Even with this widespread support, however, disagreements remain about the primary function of cycling trails, as was clear at last week's meeting of the Hernando-Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The question was how to use the $1 million available to design the connection in Hernando between the Suncoast Trail and the western end of the Good Neighbor Trail in Brooksville.
The MPO staff backed a plan created by the state Department of Transportation that would follow State Road 50 east from the Suncoast to the western edge of the city, then the SR 50 truck route around Brooksville, eventually joining the Good Neighbor Trail in eastern Brooksville.
Riders on this highway now use paved shoulders marked as bike lanes. So along with closing the gap, this route would make it easier — and much safer — for riders to commute to jobs and shopping hubs, Dix said.
"One reason we envisioned a bike trail and not just a bike lane (on SR 50) is to get people away from high-speed traffic," he said. "There's an extremely high level of truck traffic on this highway."
MPO member and Brooksville City Council member Lara Bradburn, however, said that the city has always seen the trail's primary role as drawing tourists and reviving its struggling downtown.
"The whole point is to bring (cyclists) into our towns and villages and cities so they can enjoy them and see what Florida is all about," Bradburn said.
The DOT route would bypass the head of the Good Neighbor Trail, as well as a beautification project the city has planned to link the trailhead and downtown.
"This will not help the city at all," she said of the DOT route.
Bradburn proposed accepting state funds for the design of the trail along SR 50, and using the rest of the money to study a route that would go through city parks and join directly with the trailhead.
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The MPO voted to accept the DOT plan after a representative from the department said a delay in deciding on a route might cause the county to lose funding for the design.
The organization did, however, agree to include a route through the heart of the city in a long-range transportation plan, an update of which is due for approval in December.
If that happens, the route could be considered as a replacement for or an addition to part of the DOT path, said Ron Pianta, Hernando's assistant administrator for planning and development.
Though MPO member Cabot McBride voted against Bradburn and for approval of the DOT route, he agreed with her about bike paths' potential to transform towns.
He has seen it happen in Inverness, where he serves on the City Council, and which has boomed since the completion of the Withlacoochee State Trail about 20 years ago.
Along with the lakes that abut downtown, the trail has brought in a steady stream of affluent customers, McBride said.
"We have come to realize that bikers … and boaters equal baby boomers with big bucks."
Dan DeWitt can be reached at (352) 754-6116 or email@example.com.