By Jim Turner
Daily Commercial

May 11, 2014

When lawmakers on Friday handed Gov. Rick Scott a $77.1 billion budget for 2014-15, it included $15.5 million to complete the Coast-to-Coast Connector, a bicycle and pedestrian path that includes both Lake and Sumter counties.

The project has been a priority for Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

“This is an issue that the Senate has felt very, very strongly about the last couple of years,” Gardiner told House members Tuesday. “It means a lot to us and especially it means a lot to me personally.”

The money would be used to start filling in gaps in Central Florida between existing bicycle and pedestrian trials on both of Florida’s coasts.

The largest gap remaining a 30-mile stretch between the end of the Withlacoochee State Trail in northern Pasco County and the beginning of the South Lake Trail in South Lake County. Closing the gap would take the trail from Pasco County through eastern Hernando County, through Sumter County near Webster, and east through Lake County to Clermont, where the South Lake Trail continues east to Orlando and beyond.

The connector is to eventually link the Pinellas Trail in St. Petersburg with the Space Coast.

The 38.2-mile Pinellas Trail runs north from St. Petersburg through Gulfport, Largo, Clearwater, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs. Pinellas County estimates that 70,000 people use the trail monthly and support at least 13 bicycle and rental shops located along the trail.

Connector proponents cite the economic benefits to communities that have bike trails, saying 75 percent of Florida’s tourists participate in nature-based activities during their visits. In addition to renting bikes to use these trails, tourists will naturally gravitate to restaurants, stores, shops and accommodations near the trails, supporters say.

Dale Allen, president of the Florida Greenways & Trails Foundation, said the trail will help draw eco-tourists year-round and dispel some of Florida’s image as not being bicycle and pedestrian friendly.

“It’s known in the tourist community that we’re dangerous state. This will help us change that dynamic,” Allen said. “This will give the state of Florida something major to advertise.”

DOT Office of Policy Planning Director Jim Wood said Thursday that while the trails provide strong recreational value, the DOT supports the connector and similar pedestrian proposals because of their role in transportation.

“Pinellas Trail, one of the most used trails in the country, roughly two-thirds of its use is for non-recreational use,” Wood said. “So it’s for people trying to get from place to place.”

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