Tampa Bay urban planners design more greenways, trails for future

Greenway and trail projects throughout the Tampa Bay region attract pedestrians and bicyclists in droves, especially on weekends, contributing to a new narrative about the living experience in our local environment.

Take a ride or take a look along the Tampa Riverwalk, Courtney Campbell Trail, Suncoast Trail, Selmon Greenway and Pinellas Trail. 

The popularity of the trails combined with a community desire to improve safety are prompting regional greenways and trails advocates to ratchet up the sense of urgency to plan new projects that will not only add more miles to the local trail system but also help make the network of greenways and paths more accessible. 

“There are several trails being explored,” says Michele Ogilvie executive planner at the Hillsborough County Planning Commission

Proposed trails and bike paths run through places like South Tampa, Westshore, East Tampa, south Pasco County, central Pinellas County and other local communities. Some trails are funded and planned but haven’t broken ground yet. Others are little more than dreams on the drawing board. But all are projects that many community leaders believe will help connect the more people in the community by foot, bicycle and other alternative means. 

“Trails are equitable,” says Ogilvie. “They allow anyone who can move to get out in the community or nature and connect to others or to the beautiful environment we live in here in Florida.” 

Money for these projects is raised from taxes and the private sector.

“Funding comes from many sources,” explains Ogilvie. “Grants administered by the state include Transportation Alternative funding from the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails Shared-Use Non-motorized Trail (widely known as SUN Trail) funding, local dollars found in capital improvement budgets.” 

State officials work with regional planning councils and metropolitan planning organizations. 

“Through a public process, we developed the Florida Greenways and Trails System (FGTS), which includes maps and an implementation plan,” says Samantha Browne, Chief of the Office of Greenways and Trails. “The FGTS includes existing and planned trail systems, as well as approved and local concepts. We identify where the gaps in the system are and work with our local, state, and federal partners to ‘close the gaps.’”

Closing gaps by opening trails

Creating a more complete network of trails and paths in the Greater Tampa Bay region is a complicated task driven by an alliance of local planning organizations and communities. One of the main trails that planners have been fixated on for years is the Coast-to-Coast Trail, a 275-mile path that will link St. Petersburg to Cape Canaveral via the Pinellas Trail. Construction is underway on segments of the Coast-to-Coast Trail, but there are still sections that are unfunded. 

Ramond Chiaramonte, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA), says building a coalition of local metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and working on common goals together has led to the creation of a Southwest Florida trail master plan. 

“We got eight MPOs in the Tampa Bay Area, and are also bringing in Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties, to fill in the gaps in what we call the Southwest Coastal Regional Trail. MPO directors are great – it’s been a collective effort.”

With this alliance, Chiaramonte and his team at TBARTA and other local organizations made their case at the Florida Greenways and Trails Council meeting in Tallahassee on March 31 to request millions of dollars from the state that come from SUN Trail Network funds – $25 million set aside annually for shared-use non-motorized paved paths. 

“The Florida Greenways & Trails Council recognized the Southwest Coastal Regional Trail as the number-three Regional Trail Priority Corridor for Shared-Use Non-Motorized (SUN) Trail funding out of 15 trail corridors from across the state of Florida,” says Michael Case, senior planner & project manager at TBARTA. “Coming in third is not a dishonor, but rather a tribute to how very good the competition was. The St. Johns Loop Trail (ranked first) and Capitol City (Tallahassee) to the Sea trails were prioritized ahead of the Southwest Coastal Regional Trail.”  

Still, the third-place finish for the Southwest Coastal Regional Trail could provide money that will help make dreams of filling the gaps along that and other local trails a reality. 

“There are 5 million people who would be connected to the Coast to Coast trail if the Southwest Coastal Regional Trail comes together,” says Case. 

The trail in Southwest Florida could potentially link up with other trails in Northeast Florida by way of the Coast-to-Coast Trail and other local sections. The result? A trail that could link Naples to Titusville and perhaps beyond, creating what TBARTA officials call the longest such network of local recreation trails in the United States. 

While finishing the Coast-to-Coast Trail is a priority project for TBARTA and other planning organizations in Florida, there are still many more localized trail projects on the drawing board, including several projects in the immediate Tampa Bay Area.

The Starkey Trail Gap Connector will close the Coast-to-Coast Trail gap between the Pinellas Trail and Pasco County along the Hillsborough County line. 

“Planning and alignment studies have been completed and Pinellas and Pasco County are both in need of SUN Trail Funding,” Case says. “The Pinellas Trail loop is the keystone that will link the Coast-to-Coast Trail with the Southwest Coastal Regional Trail. This would include a bike and pedestrian overpass at State Road 60 and connect Hillsborough County, via the Courtney Campbell Bridge, to the Pinellas Trail [and] Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus Counties.” 

Case points to other local projects that have recently been completed, including the final leg of the Courtney Campbell Causeway trail last summer, the Lutz Lake Fern Road Trailhead and Upper Tampa Bay Trail in Brooker Creek Preserve; all of these play important roles in the long-term goal of one contiguous network of regional trails. 

“Though not connected to another multi-use trail at the southern terminus, the Upper Tampa Bay Trail has a direct connection to the Suncoast Trail, which closely parallels the Suncoast Parkway and goes north through Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus Counties.”

In addition to the Starkey Trail Gap, another significant local project is the Good Neighbor & Suncoast Trail Connector – a six-mile path that would pass through downtown Brooksville, connecting the Suncoast Trail to the Withlacoochee State Trail. 

Samantha Browne, chief of the nonprofit Office of Greenways and Trails in Florida, says her organization prioritizes funds for projects that include existing and planned trail systems. 

“We identify where the gaps in the system are and work with our local, state and federal partners to ‘close the gaps,’ ” Browne explains. While many communities vie for the funds necessary to complete existing trails and build new ones, there is something locals can do to make their voices heard on the matter. 

“People can let their legislators know how important the trails are to their communities and can work with their local governments to show support for specific trail projects in their area.”

Promoting ecotourism, safer transportation 

Why spend millions of dollars on local trails? As local and state officials believe, building out Florida’s network of trails and greenways helps residents enjoy the outdoors and also promotes tourism. 

“They make our communities more livable; improve the economy through tourism and civic improvement; preserve and restore open space; and provide opportunities for physical activity to improve fitness and mental health,” Case explains. “The environmental benefits are numerous as well, particularly in relation to the prevailing major mode of transport in the U.S. – the private car. Bicycling and walking conserve roadway and residential space; avert the need to build, service and dispose of autos; and spare users of public space the noise, speed and intimidation that often characterize motor vehicle use, particularly in urban areas.” 

According to a report from Smart Growth America, Florida claims the four most dangerous metropolitan areas in the United States for pedestrians and bicyclists, with communities in the Tampa Bay area ranking a collective second behind Orlando. 

“A regional, off-road multi-use trail network that services the downtowns of Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Westshore, Safety Harbor, Dunedin, Brooksville, Bradenton, Sarasota, Venice, North Port, Fort Myers, and Naples, amongst many others in between would greatly reduce vehicular and bike/pedestrian conflicts while providing a safe route through these major destinations.” 

Laura Ritzko, a Tampa resident who moved to Florida from Philadelphia, says she feels unsafe riding her bikes on Tampa Bay Area roadways.

“Since moving to Tampa, I’ve pretty much stopped riding my bike on the street for safety reasons. One thing I really miss about living in Philadelphia is the freedom to just hop on my bike and go,” she relates. “That might seem kind of surprising, given that Philadelphia is a major city, but I really felt much safer riding on the roads there than I do here.” She adds, “I saw one cyclist hit by a car in Orlando.” 

While her concerns echo the sentiments many have about pedestrian and bicyclist safety in the Tampa area, Ritzko says she finds her recreational refuge on local trails. “I ride once or twice a month, usually on the weekends.” As for where she enjoys riding, the avid bicyclist prefers the Withlacoochee Trail. “[It’s] hands down my favorite place to ride.” She calls it “46 miles of pure bliss.” 

Ritzko says the Suncoast Trail and Starkey Trails are where she rides most often. “The road crossings are few and far between, which is great. For me, though, the traffic noise and smog really take away from the experience.” she says. Ritzko also frequents the Upper Tampa Bay Trail, as she finds it convenient for her riding routine. “It’s a lovely trail, but the main problem with it is that it’s much too short – a mere seven miles long.” 

Shawn Stapleton, a professional life coach and writer who lives in Tampa, says he enjoys riding along Bayshore Boulevard, but hits the Pinellas Trail, the Courtney Campbell Trail and West Orange Trail when he wants a little more time off the beaten path. 

“I love what has been done with the greenways, but I think bicycle tourism in Florida could really be improved – not just with trail connectors, but also with safe bicycle lanes on Florida roads,” he says. “Developing safe bike lanes on key roadways would be a fairly economical way of connecting trails and creating a bicycle tourism economy,” he believes. “Florida is so flat and beautiful, with year-round weather that’s conducive to riding, that such an economy could be easily developed, if the state was more proactive in developing bikeways along key roads.” 

Stapleton is excited about the Coast-to-Coast Trail, but he believes it represents just the beginning for bicycle tourism in the state.

 “I would love to see more such trails develop since, like I said, the opportunity for bicycle tourism in Florida is tremendous.” Stapleton has enjoyed his rides along the Pinellas Trail and believes that it adds “charm” to smaller communities such as Dunedin and Tarpon Springs. 

“Trails allow for slower travel, which enables the users to take notice of businesses that get lost in the blur when cars are just speeding by. With cars, travel is about the destination,” he says. “With bicycles, travel is about the journey. When it’s about the journey, the destination is infinitely adjustable, and that’s good for those businesses that have increasingly been passed over as destinations.” 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.