Trailblazers: Dreaming of a Hillsborough bike trail system

A very good article by Mitch Perry of Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. The entire article can be found following this link here.

Trailblazers: Dreaming of a Hillsborough bike trail system

Why should Pinellas have all the fun?

by MITCH PERRY

 HAPPY TRAILS: Nereia Cormier and Jason Wilson on the canal path. - Alan Snel

“Can’t you imagine how great this would be? Isn’t this neat?”

Alan Snel can’t stop talking about the potential for a bike trail on a beaten-down, makeshift path along the Tampa Bypass Canal.

The Tampa Bay area’s leading bicycle advocate is giving me a walking tour along the canal through parts of Temple Terrace’s Hilltop Dog Park late on a Friday afternoon (with heavy rains occurring, we’ve ditched the idea of biking through the area). The only thing the path is missing, he says while walking briskly, is pavement, as we maneuver through the wet, uncut grass blades that blanket much of the park.

But there are a few other obstacles as well, such as fences that cyclists must clamber over, bike in hand. Then there’s the dilemma of the bridge off of Harney Road near U.S. 301. Should we walk under it or get up on the road itself, where cars are rolling by at a robust clip?

These are just some of the barriers that Snel hopes to surmount in order to create a bike trail along the Bypass Canal, which runs from New Tampa into the downtown area.

But he and others involved with Swiftbud (South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers), the nonprofit bicycling advocacy group he heads, have even bigger dreams than paving a single trail. Their ultimate goal is to establish the Bicycle Area Mobility, or BAM, network — a trail system that would unify three distinct bike trails in Hillsborough County, offering bicyclists a safe and efficient way to get around while also interconnecting with bus routes and surface streets with bike lanes.

Four days after our walk, Snel is before the policy board of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), showing them a 3-by-5-foot map of the BAM network. He is asking the committee to recommend funding for a feasibility study that would look into paving the canal trail’s 17-mile expanse. (The MPO would go on to approve the study on Sept. 6.) The trail will offer “practical transportation,” he tells the committee, “but also a great aesthetic experience.”

The ad hoc path Snel showed me is neither. Former City Council candidate Jason Wilson says right now only a diehard bicyclist would ever consider riding from New Tampa to the urban core. “Lifting my bike over barbed wire fences made me feel like a contestant on Survivor, not a young professional in a growing and vibrant city.”

The question that hasn’t been clarified is how the canal trail would be paved.

Michele Ogilvie, an executive planner for the MPO, says that Swiftmud, which owns part of the land that is the Bypass Canal Trail, can only afford to use crushed shell for the trail. (That would be Swiftmud, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, not to be confused with Swiftbud the bicycle activists.) Alan Snel prefers a concrete or asphalt surface, which would cost more.

The concept of creating a trail along the Bypass Canal isn’t new. In 2000, the Tampa and Hillsborough Greenways Committee created a concept map for such a trail. For it to become a reality now, a coalition of groups, include TECO, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority and the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Department would all need to be in on discussions, because those agencies also own some of the land that the trail would bisect. Officials with HART would also be invited, as the MPO says that agency always looks at connections between transportation modes. (And a HART spokeswoman, Marcia Meija, says bus passengers who carry bikes on buses is up 17 percent from a year ago, amounting to over 178,000 such trips from October 2010 to June 2011.)

The other two legs of the proposed BAM network are the Selmon Greenway and the South Coast Greenway.

The South Coast Greenway, a multi-use paved trail, would run from Ruskin to Tampa, with side trails to Sun City Center, Apollo Beach, Balm, Gibsonton, Riverview and other communities, connecting several schools, libraries and shopping centers. The MPO has approved funding for it in the long-range transportation plan, but Beth Alden with the MPO says that Hillsborough County is not seeking funding this year.

The Selmon Greenway was born out of the frustrations of two Tampa architects, Nico Stearley and Anna Vasquez of HOK. Stearley commutes by bike daily from Hyde Park into downtown Tampa. She said that she and Vasquez wondered why they couldn’t ride on a bike path from Hyde Park to Ybor City, and joined the City of Tampa Greenways and Trails Citizen Advisory Committee.

Stearley said the pair “pounded the pavement sharing the idea with anyone that would listen until it got some traction.” That ultimately led to the MPO’s approval last December of a plan that would create a multi-use 1.7-mile greenway linking downtown, Ybor City, Hyde Park, Channelside and beyond.

The idea of adapting the Selmon Expressway right-of-way in downtown for a shared-use urban path is not a new concept; the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority conceived of such a usage over a decade ago. The plan approved by the MPO in 2010, however, went much further. It was not just about biking, says Karen Kress of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, but about creation of more green space and recreational areas in downtown, as well as provisions for the safety and comfort of Greenway users through the use of shade, lighting, beaches and fountains. And it would incorporate art, history and “educational elements.”

Most of the land under the Selmon Expressway is used as parking lots, so the construction of the Greenway would result in the loss of only 86 out of 973 parking spaces. Advocates for the Greenway said that adding vegetation, art and pavement treatments would help improve the aesthetics of the parking structures.

Sue Chrzan, with the Tampa Hillsborough County Expressway, says that the projected cost of the trail under the plan would have been approximately $2 million, including the costs of lighting, safety and landscaping. The Expressway attempted to get funding through a TIGER grant, monies for transportation infrastructure made available through the 2009 stimulus act, but unfortunately, the grant was rejected.

Chrzan admits that as of now, there is no known source to fund the project. But the viaduct widening slated for the Selmon could provide an opportunity for the 1.7-mile trail to be incorporated at the same time.

In the last two years he lived in Tampa (he’s now in Ohio), Jack Sweeney commuted by bicycle from Seminole Heights to downtown Tampa, where he worked at John F. Germany Library. He called his daily commute “exciting,” saying that’s the most diplomatic word he’ll use. “I was met with all manner of hostility and danger.” But he also says that the city of Tampa and surrounding areas have slowly begun to improve, adding bike lanes, signs and bike lockup points.

Unfortunately, motorists still aren’t getting the message.

As has been extensively covered by the local media, 14 cyclists have been killed on Hillsborough County roads since the beginning of 2010, an event commemorated with a Ride of Silence by approximately 50 riders this past May in downtown Tampa. Those grim statistics led to the creation of a bicycle safety action plan in Hillsborough County. They also show the need for the BAM system.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn says an urban trail is a goal. Because of Swiftbud, he says, “we are far more cognizant of the issue… because of some of the tragedies that we’ve experienced.”

Buckhorn and Jean Dorzback, transportation manager for the City of Tampa, recently sat down with Snel to discuss BAM, which she says is consistent with the long-range transportation plan of the city and county. Although it may not be evident because there are so many state and county-owned roads in Tampa, Dorzback points out that the city has been making provisions for pedestrians and cyclists for years, whenever any road widening is done (as is currently the case along Bayshore Boulevard).

The idea of uniting the three Hillsborough trails into one network is almost universally praised among city and transportation officials. And they’ve got plenty of examples nationally to back up the idea.

Denver is among the country’s most progressive communities in incorporating bike trails into its master plan. Emily Snyder, a senior planner in that city’s public works department, says that even though the city began working on its trail network in the late 1970s, only in the past three to four years have city leaders pushed to connect those trails with downtown streets.

Pedestrian improvements have proven to be an efficient use of federal transportation dollars. Portland, OR, built 300 miles of bike lanes and trails for the cost of one highway.

And then there’s the bicycle trail next door. Supporters of BAM can only dream that it becomes as popular as the 37-mile Pinellas Trail, which opened in 1990 and runs from downtown St. Petersburg up through Tarpon Springs. Unlike the situation in Hillsborough, Pinellas was able to use an existing natural path after the county was given access to a 34-mile corridor of abandoned CSX railroad right-of-way.

But as Tampa and Hillsborough get more current with what’s happening nationally, funding may be drying up on the federal level.

A new transportation bill needs to be approved in Congress by the end of this month. But the new bill outlined by the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Orlando-area Republican John Mica, calls for eliminating dedicated funding for biking and walking programs, which he has suggested “do not serve a federal purpose.” Among bicycling activists, there is a concern that funding for three programs — Safe Routes to School, Transportation Enhancements and Recreational Trails — might be cut.

But there’s always Tallahassee, right? Uh, not really.

Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s new transportation secretary, Ananth Presad, questioned whether “spending money on sidewalks, bike trails, beautification and other projects like this is the most prudent use of taxpayer money.”

But such a philosophy is 180 degrees away from the policies endorsed by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He has blogged about a “sea change” in his department, suggesting it would no longer favor “motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized.”

If Snel’s BAM network is to become a reality, he’ll need to muster up as many Ray LaHoods as possible.

He’s certainly ready and willing to preach for the cause himself.

“A unified and regionwide trail network would attract tens of thousands of users each year and cost a small fraction of the amount spent on highways and roads while also generating economic spending and development,” he says. “Dollar for dollar, it’s a sound investment and should be considered a regular government service.”

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