Investing in trail connectors makes sense | Editorials

THE ISSUE: Funding for the Withlacoochee State Trail — Dunnellon Trail connector.
OUR OPINION: Good news for our community and the region.

Happy trails

Hundreds of thousands of riders are attracted to the Withlacoochee State Trail each year because of its scenery, ease of use and nearby communities.

Local fans of “transportation alternatives” — aka trails — got some good news recently from the monthly Hernando-Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) meeting. At that meeting, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) District 7 transportation director told MPO members that he’s optimistic about obtaining funding to connect the Withlacoochee State Trail and the Dunnellon Trail in 2019.

After false starts and schedule slips, it’s great to hear that this long-awaited connection is closer to reality, and even better to hear an FDOT official say his goal is to see it funded in 2019.

What’s the big deal with this connection? It will close the gap between the Withlacoochee State Trail’s northern terminus in Citrus Springs and the Dunnellon Trail, a few miles away across U.S. 41. Part of the $5 million cost for the connector will be a safe, elevated crossing of U.S. 41, which has been a concern for years.

Just beyond the Dunnellon Trailhead is the newest trail segment, a smooth, wide, trail bridge across the Withlacoochee River, complete with viewing areas. If you haven’t visited there yet, add this to your “must-do” list.

The Withlacoochee-Dunnellon trail connector will also bring the 215-mile Heart of Florida trail loop one step closer to reality. As part the state’s Greenways and Trails system, Heart of Florida’s large circular route will connect Inverness and Floral City with not just Dunnellon but also with Silver Springs, DeLand, Lake Mary, Ocoee, Minneola, Webster and Trilby, among others.

Trails are bringing economic revitalization to trail towns all over rural America. Here in Citrus County, the Withlacoochee State Trail is already a draw for visitors and residents alike, on normal weekdays and weekends as well as during the two big annual charity trail rides. When the Chronicle sent a reporter out to talk to residents using the trail, a surprising number said they moved to Citrus County because of it. Trails are the most desired community amenity among home shoppers, according to a landmark study by the National Association of Home Builders

Baby Boomers, Citrus County’s major demographic group, are famously health-conscious and are reinventing retirement, many preferring active experiences to more sedentary,

traditional retirement lifestyles. Inverness is hanging its economic hat on the fact that bicycle enthusiasts enjoy being able to stop off in small, welcoming towns, where they spend ample discretionary income in restaurants, shops and lodgings.

Citrus County is able to offer the best opportunities for “silent sports”— biking, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, fishing and birdwatching. Investing in the resources to support those activities makes sense, both for the enjoyment factor and the economic impact benefiting our community.

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