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Test ride shows pathway's potential

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000

TAMPA PALMS -- It seemed like an idea too good to pass up: See New Tampa from a bicycle. On work time. Along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Never mind that New Tampa already has great places to ride a bike -- Tampa Palms Boulevard, for starters. In these final days before a brutal endless summer, what better way to pass a morning than to test-drive the city's new $1.5-million bike path?

I'll say this, having sampled the merchandise: The city, which got federal funds for this trail, and the state Department of Transportation, which is building it, have their hearts in the right place. But serious cyclists might want to wait until the trail is a bit more developed.

The 10-foot-wide path, also suitable for jogging and skating, is designed to help New Tampa residents get to Flatwoods Wilderness Park -- without driving, depending on where you live and how ambitious you are. In a few more months the trail will actually go to Flatwoods, and eventually points north and south.

There is a bike lane, of sorts, south of Tampa Palms on Bruce B. Downs, but riding alongside traffic has never been my idea of a good time. Better to start at Amberly Drive, where the off-road path begins.

Traveling north, the first stretch of road, "adopted" by the Grace Episcopal Church, is surprisingly pretty, with landscaping on your right and a nice grassy buffer on your left.

They take great care to keep vehicles off the path, and that leads to its main drawback -- bright yellow poles, erected three abreast at the intersections. It takes considerable agility to maneuver a bike between them. Cruise along as I do, daydreaming about last night's television shows, and you'll wind up with 3 feet of yellow-painted concrete up your nose.

"You're supposed to stop at the intersections," said Jim Burnside, a city engineering supervisor. Not only that, added Shari Barnwell of the DOT, skaters need these poles, called bollards, in case they have trouble stopping.

One mystery solved.

The crosswalks were otherwise easy to negotiate, and it was smooth sailing until I hit the Lowe's construction site. That's when it all started to look ugly. It smelled ugly, too, probably because they were laying asphalt in the parking lot. A grim reminder that Bruce B. Downs is, and long will remain, one big construction zone.

South of the entrance ramp to Interstate 75 south, a series of signs said "road closed." But the road didn't look closed, so I kept going, across the I-75 on and off ramps. The crossings are designed at 90-degree angles for optimum visibility. Still, there was no mistaking that these were highway ramps.

The finished trail, I later learned, will have stop signs at the highway ramps and pedestrian signals at the traffic lights. And a sign will warn motorists on the southbound ramp from I-75 of the bike path's existence.

Then, just north of the Wingate Inn, the path snaked right out to the road and ended. That's because the second and more expensive phase of the project, which includes a bridge over Trout Creek wetlands and continues on to Flatwoods and Hunter's Green, has yet to be completed.

Nothing to do, then, but have breakfast at Chick-fil-A.

Of course, the other problem with the Bruce B. Downs trail is that it only runs on one side of the road. There's no sidewalk on the other side, so you have to return the way you came.

Seeking an alternative, I tested a service road to the Wingate Inn. Would it link up to the trail? Only a fool would take that bet, and sure enough it dead-ended at a city's water plant. You could see the trail from the service road, but you'd have to be E.T. to get there.

So, it was back up the service road, then back down the trail, across all of those I-75 ramps and past two construction crews, who ignored me as I rode through on the "closed" road.

Total distance traveled: 8 miles, or 60 minutes of fun in the sun.

So far, Burnside said, "we've gotten limited positive comments" about the trail. Designers expect it will gain in popularity after Phase II, which includes the wetlands bridge and the connection to Flatwoods, is completed in August. "Eventually we would like something that would connect up to USF," he said. They'd also like to take the path north to Cross Creek.

The chief complaint they've received, he said, is that "we haven't taken it far enough."

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