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A Times Editorial

Park along barge canal deserves local support

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000

The state Office of Greenways and Trails is building a 110-mile linear park alongside the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which has existed for more than 40 years as a textbook example of a government boondoggle. In contrast to that history, the park proposal is an inspired idea to rectify some of the environmental damage the barge canal spawned, and to provide residents with a premier recreational asset.

But the state needs some help to make it work, and the Citrus County Commission should be eager to do all it can to further this project.

Representatives from the Office of Greenways and Trails, which is an arm of the Department of Environmental Protection, came to Citrus County last week to ask the commission for about $500,000 of in-kind contributions to help build hiking and biking trails, boat ramps and parking spaces. The state is paying more than $2-million to cover most of the project, but says it already is over budget by about 20 percent.

The park eventually will stretch from the Gulf of Mexico in Inglis all the way to the St. Johns River in Putnam County. The path will parallel the barge canal, which was envisioned in the 1930s as a time-saving shipping route from the gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. In the following 40 years, federal judges entertained arguments about the massive undertaking's potential harm to the Floridan Aquifer before a federal court finally halted construction on the project in 1974. Since then, environmentalists have squared off with developers and other private interests who have attempted to capitalize on the waterway made by man and paid for by Congress.

Because Citrus County is the western gateway to the cross-state park, commissioners have an added incentive -- make that responsibility -- to ensure visitors appreciate the expenditure of their tax dollars. Consequently, the commission should make completing the Citrus County stretch of the park a priority.

Local governments across Florida long have shared the frustration that comes from being forced to help pay for projects undertaken, or even mandated, by state government. Too often county commissions and school boards wind up resenting the state's imposition and regard it as arbitrary interference from outsiders who have little understanding about local residents' wants.

The barge canal park does not fit that category, and the county should meet its obligation to ensure this significant project opens on schedule by 2002.

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