County greenlights completion of Pinellas Trail North Loop

Ken Jacobs, traffic division manager for the county’s Public Works Department, talks about the criteria used to select the proposed route to complete the Pinellas Trail North Loop during a June 20 work session.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners told staff to continue work toward finishing the Pinellas Trail North Loop June 20, using previously approved plans with one exception.

After a few residents complained about the proposed route this spring, commissioners agreed on April 9 to hit the pause button and make sure no changes were warranted. Initial studies on the project had been done in 2008.

The Pinellas Trail Loop is a 75-mile regional trail network that functions as a linear park and provides an alternative transportation option for the county’s residents and visitors. The county has been working to complete the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail since it first opened in 1990.

When complete, it will circle the county, running from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg. To finish the loop, two projects remain — the north gap and a south gap.

The proposed route to close the 6.8-mile north gap would take it along the Duke Energy easement to Meadow Wood Drive and Countryside Drive. It would connect at John Chesnut Sr. Park and the existing overpass at Enterprise Road on the south.

Commissioners decided June 20 during a work session at the Public Works facility in Clearwater to keep the proposed alignment with one exception, using Northside Drive instead of Meadow Wood Drive. The area of both roadways is near the Countryside Mall and Countryside Recreation Center.

Staff preferred Meadow Wood Drive because it had 10 fewer cross streets than Northside Drive. Ken Jacobs, traffic division manager for the county’s Public Works Department, explained that the goal is to eliminate as many turning movement conflicts as possible to create the safest route. The more streets, driveways and other places where vehicles can move and turn within the pedestrian path, the more potential for accidents.

However, at least one resident preferred Northside Drive because it had fewer homes along the route. The trail would run through the area (via Meadow Wood Drive or Northside Drive) on sidewalks alongside the road. The existing four-foot sidewalks would be widened to eight-feet, moving closer to the roadway, not the homes, Jacobs said.

Commissioners gave a firm no to residents that wanted to move the trail off the Duke Energy easement onto McMullen-Booth Road. Jacobs said McMullen-Booth Road had been eliminated from the possibilities years ago because of the number of crossings, including roadways and driveways, traffic volumes and higher speed limits.

Commissioners agreed it was an unsafe alternative.

Residents that prefer the McMullen-Booth Road object to using the Duke Energy easement to travel between Enterprise Road and Tampa Road. They had a number of concerns, including a lack of available amenities, such as restaurants and restrooms. They also believe it would be less expensive to use McMullen-Booth Road.

In addition, they are worried that having the trail run on the easement behind their homes would take away their privacy, increase crime and decrease property values. They worry that people will set fires, causing wildfires along the easement. They also are concerned about the potential for harm to those using the trail from electromagnetic fields emanating from the power lines.

Jacobs debunked all those concerns. He said studies had shown that crime rates are only as high as the rates of the surrounding area. Trails don’t increase crime in low-crime areas, he said. Real estate agents say property values are unaffected. Prospective owners are as likely to be attracted to a home near a trail as not. Privacy should not be an issue as the edge of the trail along the easement will be located at least 25-feet from the homeowner’s property line.

The county invited Kim Craven, Duke Energy’s expert on EMFs, to address concerns about potential harm from power lines. He said despite claims that EMFs can have health effects, including causing certain cancers and childhood leukemia, recent studies don’t confirm that there is any adverse risk.

Commissioners are still concerned about the crossing on State Road 580. Jacobs said Florida Department of Transportation had already approved installing a new fully signalized intersection. Cost and possible funding sources to build an overpass are still unknown.

Construction of the north trail loop will be paid for with $3 million from Penny for Pinellas and $5.7 million from the state’s Sun Trail program.

Jacobs will take the commissioner’s request to look at using Northside Drive to the contractor to check for any issues. Unless, it causes a problem, plans will proceed using the route amendment. Design plans are now 60% complete and permits are in place.

The next step is for the contractor to provide a guaranteed maximum price that would be presented to the commission for approval. If approved, construction would begin this summer with a target date for completion during the summer of 2020.

Commissioner Dave Eggers thanked all the residents who had expressed concerns, offered suggestions and support. He discounted the suggestion that the trail go unfinished.

“The community has embraced the trail for all the reasons mentioned today,” he said, adding that it had only been an asset to Dunedin, where he lives and once served as mayor.

It has a lot of support from “residents who understand the benefits and beauty of the trail,” he said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.