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Loss of state money casts doubt on future of trail link

A state committee declined a $7.9-million grant to link two pedestrian trails, but supporters still hope to persuade the county and the Legislature to allocate money.

By JACKIE RIPLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


LUTZ -- Supporters of an uninterrupted pedestrian trail from Upper Tampa Bay to the north Suncoast are racing the clock to set aside crucial land near Cheval.

That land, not yet purchased because state funding was not made available, would enable the county to link the Upper Tampa Bay Trail to the south end of the 29-mile Suncoast Parkway Trail for a non-motorized straight shot between northwest Hillsborough County and Hernando County.

"Without it, we cannot connect to the Suncoast," said Charner Reese, principal planner with the county's department of planning and growth management.

Reese and others had counted on $7.9-million from the Florida Department of Transportation Outreach Program, or TOP, whose seven-member advisory council reviews and prioritizes transportation projects. The grant, applied for last November, would have paid for the last 7.5 miles of the 15-mile Upper Tampa Bay Trail from Peterson Road to Lutz-Lake Fern Road.

"It would have paid for everything, from beginning to end, with the largest chunk going toward land acquisition," Reese said. Construction would have started next fall.

But the TOP advisory council did not approve Hillsborough's grant request. In fact, it didn't approve any pedestrian trails, said Ed Crawford, chairman of the Hillsborough County Greenways Committee. Instead, it allocated most of its $116-million to road projects and some to airports and seaports.

Now trail proponents are hoping to prevail upon the state Legislature, which has the final say in how the money is spent.

"We'll have to wait and see what the Legislature decides to do with the committee's recommendation," Crawford said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, expressed concern that the Tampa Bay area had no representation on the TOP committee. He said that there is always a possibility of overturning a committee's recommendation, "but we're treading into an area where you have to be very cautious."

State funding could be in even greater jeopardy if the TOP council is forced to use the money for the high-speed rail. Gov. Jeb Bush put nothing in the proposed 2001-2002 state budget for the train, but voters in November approved a constitutional amendment requiring construction of the train to begin in 2003.

Trail supporters say it is important that the county tie up the right-of-way before it is developed. "Right-of-way is a critical issue," Crawford said. "If we don't buy that property, it won't be there when we go to get it."

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