Pasco officials push for trail loop

A decision is months away.

But much is at stake for whichever county secures the favor of the Florida Department of Transportation in choosing a 20-mile route for the Coast to Coast (C2C) Connector Trail.

State highway officials anticipate completing a feasibility study in June 2016 on a northern route through Hernando and Sumter County or a southern route through Pasco and Sumter County.

Dade City resident and professional cyclist Josh Thornton spoke in support of a Pasco recreational trail, and a proposal to build a loop from two separate trails. (Photos courtesy of Richard Riley)

Dade City resident and professional cyclist Josh Thornton spoke in support of a Pasco recreational trail, and a proposal to build a loop from two separate trails.
(Photos courtesy of Richard Riley)

Sumter County is the only sure winner in the construction of a major segment of the planned 275-mile trail that will link the state’s east and west coasts.

Florida DOT representatives from District 5 presented a slide show on the study and the routes during a Sept. 10 board member of the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization.

About 35 people attended the meeting including area residents, elected officials and FDOT representatives from District 7 and District 5.

For Pasco MPO members, it was a chance to make the case for the southern route, but also to push for construction of a loop that would be created by building both routes.

Except as a future project, however, FDOT officials didn’t encourage hope for the loop.

“That can be a suggestion. It’s something you need to work on with Sumter County and what their visions are on the Coast to Coast Connector (Trail),” said Lee Royal, government liaison for FDOT in District 7. “That would be a decision through the planning process.”

Pasco MPO Chairman Lance Smith said a loop is the type of trail ride that bicyclists enjoy, and this one would provide a round trip of nearly 45 miles. “You look for a loop more than an up and back (ride),” said Smith, who also serves on Zephyrhills City Council.

The northern route begins in Hernando, then heads southeast through Sumter, linking the cities of Center Hill and Webster before connecting with the Withlacoochee State Trail.

The southern route jogs through northeast Pasco, parallels State Road 50, and moves into the Withlacoochee Forest on its way to trails end in eastern Sumter.

John Moors, executive director of the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce, speaks in support of a recreational trail through Pasco County as others line up behind him at the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization’s board meeting.

John Moors, executive director of the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce, speaks in support of a recreational trail through Pasco County as others line up behind him at the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization’s board meeting.

“That’s a real life line for us to have the southern route,” said Dade City Mayor Camille Hernandez. She serves on the Pasco MPO.

Dade City and northeast Pasco are draws for hundreds of bicyclists who come weekly to enjoy the challenges of the area’s rolling hills.

“Our area is a mecca for cyclists,” said Josh Thornton. He is a former professional cyclist who lives in Dade City. “This is a big thing to have cyclists come to the area and support local businesses.”

He supports the southern route but he added, “It’s a great idea to have a loop.”

Pasco officials anticipate the construction of several trails that will link Pasco and Pinellas County, and eventually hook up with Suncoast Trail and Hernando. Work is underway on U.S. 301 on a multi-use trail that in future will link with the Hardy Trail, in Dade City.

The trail system and the bicycling community are part of Dade City’s identity, Hernandez said.

“We’re really working very, very hard to connect what we have here,” she said.

But the town of Webster is just as convinced that the trail can be its economic lifeline. Mayor Kelly Williams attended the meeting to make her city’s case.

She secured a grant for Webster to pay for an analysis of the economic impact of the trail on Webster’s local economy.

Portions of the analysis included studies of trails built in other areas, including Winter Garden in Orange County. The Orange County Trail study relied on data provided by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council.

The report noted that the southern route would produce nearly 33,000 annual user trips compared to nearly 29,000 on the northern route. However, more economic opportunities would be available, and more money generated along the northern route, according to the study.

The analysis focused on a 75-mile radius of Webster, which the study found would be a significant destination point for people following the Scenic Sumter Heritage Byway.

Local trail users on the southern route would spend about $9 per person while northern route users would spend more than $13. Annual spending on both routes would exceed $300,000 but the northern route would come out ahead by about $80,000, the study found.

The spending opportunities included restaurants, food and beverages, rental fees, guide maps/books and lodging.

Webster would see between $393,000 and nearly $500,000 pumped into the local economy, according to the study.

“It would be an unbelievable economic boon to Webster, having the trail go through there,” said Williams. “I will continue to fight for my city as I know you will for yours.”

One Webster resident, Thomas Parsons, told Pasco MPO members he doesn’t support either route. The best option, he said, would be for the trail to follow State Road 50 where the state already has rights of way.

The northern route crosses his driveway, Parsons said. And though he is not a hunter, Parsons said, people who use dogs to aid their hunting worry about lack of access to their hunting areas. “I think this is another attack on their rights,” he said.

Several Pasco MPO members took FDOT to task for what they saw as a snub to Pasco in the kick-off meeting for the feasibility study. About 120 people attended the meeting near Webster but MPO members said prior notification was insufficient.

Not surprisingly, most who attended were from Sumter and they favored the northern route, said Pasco County Chairman Ted Schrader.

In addition, members were upset that FDOT had no plans to schedule upcoming meetings in Pasco.

Royal said as many as 8,500 mailings were sent to people within 300 feet of the proposed corridors. Local governments also were notified, she said.

But Pasco County Commissioner Mike Wells said he only recalls receiving an update after the meeting.

Two additional workshops will be scheduled in 2016. By the end of the meeting, FDOT officials agreed to hold one workshop in Pasco.

Published September 16, 2015

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