Trail of the Month: February 2008
Great rail-trails very seldom sit still. They branch out; they bridge; they knit together communities. They turn pathways into parks, commutes into convenience, stress into safety, exercise into recreation. And few rail-trails have worked harder to inspire healthy activity than Florida's 34-mile Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, built along the old CSX Railroad right-of-way from Tarpon Springs south to St. Petersburg—where average winter temperatures in the 70s, tidal waterways and the salt-sticky smell of ocean have made the greenway one of the most trafficked in the country.
Successful trails, of course, are often the reflection their grassroots supporters and planners, and the Pinellas has been fortunate with its friends.
From the local friends-of-the-trail group, Pinellas Trails, Inc., to business leaders and elected officials, the greenway has enjoyed sturdy community backing, says Jerry Cummings, who managed the Pinellas from its first days. He says this tradition of support has become especially important lately as trail planners push for ambitious expansion projects. Indeed several new segments are already under construction, with the ultimate goal to circle Pinellas County and the greater Tampa Bay area with an 80-mile trail lasso. Or, as Susan Miller of the Pinellas County Planning Department puts it, "a big rubber band, and we just need pieces around the bendy parts to connect it."
The stretch is very much on. One of the newest and longest additions, called the Progress Energy Trail for the utility corridor it shares, will run 23 miles roughly parallel to the current Pinellas route. Three miles have been laid so far. The rest await more funding from the county, but Miller still anticipates that the Pinellas system could nearly double in total length over the next few years.
At the trail's southern tip in St. Petersburg, length hasn't been the only story. Second-term Mayor Rick Baker has focused equally on making streets and neighborhoods welcoming to more than just vehicles. His CityStreets initiative, which aggressively promotes urban bike lanes and trails, has helped transform a city once ranked among the most dangerous for pedestrians into a haven for bicyclists, joggers and families on the go. "It seems like such a natural thing when you're an outdoor city," says Baker, "for people to be able to walk and ride bikes and Rollerblade and push strollers in a safe manner throughout the city. It's a quality of life issue."
When he was first elected in 2001, Baker says it used to drive him crazy to see bicycles chained to signs downtown, and how few opportunities there were for residents to move around or park in the city without a car. The city has since replaced a number of car parking spots with room for 10 bicycles, and temporary racks are brought in for special events. Baker has also implemented pedestrian, cyclist and driver education programs to improve shared-road etiquette, and the city has posted signs and electronic crossings at the most hazardous intersections. To support a culture of healthy outdoors activity for everyone, Baker says, he wants to develop the largest bike path system in the Southeast. And he's almost there.
"By the time we're done," he says, "we should have a system where you can get wherever you want to go in the city on some kind of bike lane or path."
Included in this growth, and what has Baker and his staff especially excited, is a 3.1-mile asphalt extension to the Pinellas that will burrow into the muscle of downtown, all the way to the waterfront. Set to open on January 1, 2008, this add-on will swing by Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and guide visitors to Saturday morning markets, sidewalk cafes, the annual July 4th and New Years celebrations, and a whole community of beachfront recreation and commerce—not to mention access to the 2.6-mile Friendship TrailBridge across the bay to Tampa, Florida's third-largest city.
In a community of 250,000 people, connected to a trail with an estimated 90,000 users a month, these three extra miles could have a huge impact on the flow of human traffic, including the impact those people have on their environment. "On the macro-level," Mayor Baker says, "the concept of getting people out of cars and onto bicycles and rollerblades improves their health, but also you're burning less carbon with fewer cars on the road."
So don't let its palm trees, beach-bum rays and lazy locks of Spanish moss fool you: the Pinellas Trail has far more than just recreation on its agenda, and neighborhoods and businesses all along the route are vying for a piece of the path. To recognize this ongoing commitment to community movement, economies and health, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy named the Pinellas the third inductee to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, joining Maryland and Pennsylvania's Great Allegheny Passage and Missouri's Katy Trail State Park.
For more information, user reviews and descriptions of the trail, please visit TrailLink.com.