Green miles 

Is Hillsborough finally waking up to the benefits of bike paths?

They’re calling it “The Green Spine.” A key part of Mayor Buckhorn’s master plan for downtown Tampa and environs, it’s a proposed 12-foot-wide, 3.4-mile path for both bicyclists and pedestrians that would extend from Cuscaden Park in Ybor City to Homer Hesterly Armory on Howard Avenue.

I biked the route in its present state, sans Spine; it was pretty terrifying. Sharing the road with vehicles many tons heavier than you is no fun in the best of circumstances, and Hillsborough has a special distinction: The county led the state in pedestrian and bicycle fatalities in 2010 and 2011. That dismal record led Commissioner Kevin Beckner to secure $8.6 million funding to improve the 10 deadliest routes; work is underway with completion planned for this September.

Fortunately, there are places in both Pinellas and Hillsborough where you can enjoy car-free bike rides. The Pinellas Trail and the Flatwoods Park Paved Loop offer this heady freedom, and many riders relish them for both recreation and commutes.

But if we are to embrace cycling as a real transportation choice for people, we need to extend the pathways. In St. Pete, Mayor Rick Baker was responsible for vast improvements to the citywide biking system, so that cyclists can now travel in security from Tampa Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Under his leadership, over 40 miles of bicycle lanes were created, forming a citywide grid and connecting strategically to the Pinellas Trail.

Hillsborough has a countywide bike plan in place, and discussions have begun regarding the most ambitious new venture: a 17-mile connection in the eastern part of the county that would stretch from Flatwoods along the Bypass Canal to Adamo Drive.

Tampa’s Green Artery, a grassroots group made up of folks from 20 adjacent neighborhoods, celebrated its second birthday in October. Their vision is to connect all 20 areas with safe, well-lit, bike and pedestrian linkages to foster civic pride and spark collaboration. The group is asking each neighborhood to identify its green spaces, improve them with benches, community gardens, public art and landscaping, and create safe passageways for people to discover these gems.

As set out in Mayor Buckhorn’s InVision Plan, the Green Spine would be the city’s first separated urban bike path. Jim Shirk, an engineer who chairs the Hillsborough County Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, estimates that the cost of separating the bicyclists and restriping the roads would be between $100,000 and $150,000 a mile. So how much bang would we get for our buck? The measurement which I believe is the most complete is the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. If you use economic, social and ecological benefits as your prism in thinking about how we should spend public money, then the Green Spine is the deal of the century.

Step right up! For millions less than the estimated $6.25 million cost of luring Bass Pro Shops to Brandon, we could safely connect thousands of potential bicycle riders and pedestrians from Bayshore Boulevard and West Tampa to Ybor City and Seminole Heights. Within a mile of the proposed route, we have the population density to fill the Green Spine with people who are enjoying the additional benefits of exercise, community, and cleaner air.

Such a deal!

Has Pinellas County experienced an enhanced triple bottom line from investment in its trail? You betcha! According to Karen Seel, Pinellas County Commissioner, “The dollars we spent on our trails and bikeways have been more than repaid in restaurant and retail receipts. Especially in Dunedin and downtown St. Pete, with cafes clustering along the routes. Plus, people riding and walking are healthier.”

Statewide, Florida is wakening to the sweet smell of ecotourism dollars lured by safe bicycling opportunities. The website bikeflorida.com provides an overview of opportunities to ride statewide, and the Florida Department of Transportation is coordinating multi-county trails which allow intrepid riders hours of connected, challenging paths.

Big picture, long term, there’s an amazing statewide plan for a “Coast to Coast Connector” which would link St. Petersburg on the Gulf to the Cape Canaveral National Seashore on the Atlantic, doing a loop-de-loop around the state’s center. Funding will be coordinated through FDOT, Florida Greenways and Trails and the Department of Environmental Protection.

So, from a safe way to ride to your corner store to connections stretching statewide, there may be a bike lane coming soon near you. Now we just have to put something into drivers’ drinking water to make them truly share the road!

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