San Antonio is a destination for many bicycle enthusiasts who want scenic vistas and the rolling hills they can find in rural northeast Pasco County.
On weekends, bicyclists en masse pedal their way across the landscape. For four years in a row, San Antonio has hosted Gran Fondo Florida, one of eight events nationwide in the Gran Fondo National Championship series.
County officials are taking notice of cycling’s growing popularity, and the potential for San Antonio as a tourist hub surrounded by a trail system and destinations that promote the arts, entertainment, food and nature’s beauty.
But, if the foundation is there, a lot of work is still to be done to build a unified vision for everyone who shares the roads – bicyclists, residents and motorists.
The obstacle that most often pops up is where to find the money to make things happen.
Pasco County Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey hopes she has started the dialogue. She told 30 or so people who attended an Aug. 11 public meeting in Dade City that money shouldn’t be the focus – at least, for now.
“We’ll never get there if we don’t plan,” she said. “What I’m hoping is we start having a vision and a plan. Then, we’ll get the money. This is just a first step.”
Topics at the meeting ranged from the practical – who to notify about potholes – to the visionary – how to craft a grand plan to promote tourism and safe roads for everyone.
Pasco County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization has a consulting firm – AECOM – that soon will conduct a fact-gathering study to identify potential projects.
Input from the meeting on popular routes and trails, as well as safety concerns, will aid the county in defining the “scope of work” needed from AECOM. Consultants also will scout out funding sources, and recommend how to start the process, said James Edwards, transportation planning manager for Pasco MPO.
While some recommendations would focus on long-range plans, Edwards said, “We want to look at the low-hanging fruit. What can we do in the short term?”
The narrowness of many of the rural two-lane roads is a major safety issue. They barely allow two vehicles to pass, and bicyclists have no sidewalks or shoulders to get out of the way of motorists.
Janet Geiger isn’t a bicyclist. But, she said, “I drive (agricultural) trailers where the wheels are outside the lanes. The right of way is there, but the pavement isn’t.”
Josh Thornton, a former professional cyclist, leads community bicycle rides on Saturdays. Of more than 60 miles of roads within the area, he said, “Less than five miles have any shoulders.”
Currently, the county has no plans to widen any roads in the area. But Starkey said, “At the end of the day, we’ve got to figure out how to put shoulders on these roads.”
Tampa resident Steve Brown, who also organizes Saturday rides in San Antonio, said road conditions in some areas have been poor for years. “We know where those spots are,” he said. “We need to know who to call.”
County officials said potholes or other road issues should be reported with the county’s mobile phone application, MyPasco.
Finding ways to improve the roads and accommodate the growing cycling crowd that seeks out northeast Pasco is driving the county’s future tourism plans.
Surrounding counties also are looking for “green dollars” from trails and tourism.
“It’s one of the most asked for things at tourism centers,” said Steve Diez, a transportation planner for Hernando County and chairman of the Good Neighbor Trail Committee. “When they get done with Disney, they want to ride their bikes. They want to see the countryside on two wheels.”
Florida is working on a Coast to Coast trail that will link the state’s east and west coasts. A portion of the trail will go through Pasco and county officials are lobbying for a special loop trail that would come south to Dade City and San Antonio.
Another future trail could follow the former Orange Line railroad tracks, near Land O’ Lakes.
Pasco’s Tourism Manager Ed Caum said the county plans to spend about $1.2 million promoting and marketing the county’s trails and trail-related activities. Another $250,000 will pay for cycling-friendly visitor centers, which will bring together the public and private sectors.
There is potential to transform the former Dade City police station into a bicycle tune-up site that also could offer cyclists craft beers, sandwiches and an opportunity to explore the restaurants and shops in downtown Dade City.
Pasco can look to Pinellas County and the Pinellas Friendship Trail as an example of the economic benefits of trails, said Richard Gehring, Pasco’s strategic policy administrator.
It is a major component in marketing campaigns for homebuilders and area businesses, he said. “People like to advertise how close they are to the trail,” Gehring said. “Everyone is building them into their amenities packages…and seeing that as a really marketable element.”
Not everyone is ready to embrace an influx of more bicyclists, however.
Tensions bubbled up at the meeting revealing a divide that often exists between cyclists and motorists who don’t always agree on who has the right of way.
One area resident said bicycle groups sometimes behave more like road hogs, and don’t get out of the way. Bicyclists at the meeting said most riders are respectful in following the rules of the road, and see aggressive driving as the problem.
Dade City resident Sonya New said she understands the motorist’s frustrations. But, she said, “There’s a lot of hatred for the cyclists out there.”
Florida and the Tampa Bay area annually rank at or near the top in annual bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. Based on federal statistics, Florida, per capita, has the most bicyclist fatalities of any state, with an annual average of 5.7 deaths per million people.
The national average, per capita, is 2.3 deaths per million people.
The consensus at the meeting was for more education on road rules, and safety for cyclists and motorists.
“We can have both. It happens in rural America all over the place,” Starkey said.
Published August 24, 2016