Trailblazers: Dreaming of a Hillsborough bike trail system 

Why should Pinellas have all the fun?

"Can't you imagine how great this would be? Isn't this neat?"

Alan Snel can't stop talking about the potential for a bike trail on a beaten-down, makeshift path along the Tampa Bypass Canal.

The Tampa Bay area's leading bicycle advocate is giving me a walking tour along the canal through parts of Temple Terrace's Hilltop Dog Park late on a Friday afternoon (with heavy rains occurring, we've ditched the idea of biking through the area). The only thing the path is missing, he says while walking briskly, is pavement, as we maneuver through the wet, uncut grass blades that blanket much of the park.

But there are a few other obstacles as well, such as fences that cyclists must clamber over, bike in hand. Then there's the dilemma of the bridge off of Harney Road near U.S. 301. Should we walk under it or get up on the road itself, where cars are rolling by at a robust clip?

These are just some of the barriers that Snel hopes to surmount in order to create a bike trail along the Bypass Canal, which runs from New Tampa into the downtown area.

But he and others involved with Swiftbud (South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers), the nonprofit bicycling advocacy group he heads, have even bigger dreams than paving a single trail. Their ultimate goal is to establish the Bicycle Area Mobility, or BAM, network — a trail system that would unify three distinct bike trails in Hillsborough County, offering bicyclists a safe and efficient way to get around while also interconnecting with bus routes and surface streets with bike lanes.

Four days after our walk, Snel is before the policy board of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), showing them a 3-by-5-foot map of the BAM network. He is asking the committee to recommend funding for a feasibility study that would look into paving the canal trail's 17-mile expanse. (The MPO would go on to approve the study on Sept. 6.) The trail will offer "practical transportation," he tells the committee, "but also a great aesthetic experience."

The ad hoc path Snel showed me is neither. Former City Council candidate Jason Wilson says right now only a diehard bicyclist would ever consider riding from New Tampa to the urban core. "Lifting my bike over barbed wire fences made me feel like a contestant on Survivor, not a young professional in a growing and vibrant city."

The question that hasn't been clarified is how the canal trail would be paved.

Michele Ogilvie, an executive planner for the MPO, says that Swiftmud, which owns part of the land that is the Bypass Canal Trail, can only afford to use crushed shell for the trail. (That would be Swiftmud, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, not to be confused with Swiftbud the bicycle activists.) Alan Snel prefers a concrete or asphalt surface, which would cost more.

The concept of creating a trail along the Bypass Canal isn't new. In 2000, the Tampa and Hillsborough Greenways Committee created a concept map for such a trail. For it to become a reality now, a coalition of groups, include TECO, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Department would all need to be in on discussions, because those agencies also own some of the land that the trail would bisect. Officials with HART would also be invited, as the MPO says that agency always looks at connections between transportation modes. (And a HART spokeswoman, Marcia Meija, says bus passengers who carry bikes on buses is up 17 percent from a year ago, amounting to over 178,000 such trips from October 2010 to June 2011.)

The other two legs of the proposed BAM network are the Selmon Greenway and the South Coast Greenway.

The South Coast Greenway, a multi-use paved trail, would run from Ruskin to Tampa, with side trails to Sun City Center, Apollo Beach, Balm, Gibsonton, Riverview and other communities, connecting several schools, libraries and shopping centers. The MPO has approved funding for it in the long-range transportation plan, but Beth Alden with the MPO says that Hillsborough County is not seeking funding this year.

The Selmon Greenway was born out of the frustrations of two Tampa architects, Nico Stearley and Anna Vasquez of HOK. Stearley commutes by bike daily from Hyde Park into downtown Tampa. She said that she and Vasquez wondered why they couldn't ride on a bike path from Hyde Park to Ybor City, and joined the City of Tampa Greenways and Trails Citizen Advisory Committee.

Stearley said the pair "pounded the pavement sharing the idea with anyone that would listen until it got some traction." That ultimately led to the MPO's approval last December of a plan that would create a multi-use 1.7-mile greenway linking downtown, Ybor City, Hyde Park, Channelside and beyond.

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