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withlacoochee state trail dunnellon trail connector

A Mile of Trail provides a Myriad of Connected Opportunities

By Max Schulman Posted on April 14, 2022

The Withlacoochee State Trail extends 46 miles from Citrus Springs to Dade City. It is a multi-use trail spanning Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties. The 2.5-mile Dunnellon Trail features a dramatic bridge over the Withlacoochee River.

The Dunnellon Trail was designed and built as a connector to join the Cross Florida Greenway and the Withlacoochee State Trail, but to get from the Withlacoochee State Trail to the Dunnellon Trail meant walking through heavy woods, which may or may not have been legal, and carrying your bike – not ideal.

Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Trail Connector ​(Project ​437349-1-52-01​)​ is a multi-use trail from the end of the Withlacoochee State Trail to the south end of Dunnellon Trail. 

The new trail includes a pedestrian crossing at US 41 near CR 39 in Citrus County. Based on public input, the crossing at US 41 was built as an underpass rather than an overpass. The underpass allows pedestrians and bicyclists to continue safely on an uninterrupted route between the ​two trail​s​.

Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Trail Connector Ribbon Cutting

The Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Trail Connector was completed in February 2022, to provide connectivity between these major trail systems. It was a project that showed the best of government working with trail users to improve outdoor recreational experiences and this outstanding project’s completion was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting March 24.

The ceremony was held in the US 41 underpass of the new trail, immediately south of the CR 39 intersection.

David Gwynn, from FDOT district 7 remarked that there were more people in attendance of the Trail Connector opening than were at the Veterans Highway extension opening last month! Image courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation.
David Gwynn, from FDOT district 7, remarked that there were more people in attendance of the Trail Connector opening than were at the Veterans Highway extension opening last month! Image courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation.

Despite a weather forecast promising heavy rains all day, a very large crowd showed up. They biked, walked, or took golf cart rides down the last segment of the newly paved Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Trail Connector.  The atmosphere was festive, and the crowd represented all the elements of state, county, local governments with Central Florida’s ever-growing trails community. 

I have followed the Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Connector Trail as it made its way from concept to project. Today, from the moment the crowd started to assemble, you could tell it was a lovefest.

“The Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Trail connector grand opening is exciting and the culmination of years of dedicated, hard work. Cycling is a strong component of the tourism product for both Citrus and Marion counties. Uniting these two trails, that previously just ended (only a mile from each other), is one step closer to achieving the goal of a connected trail system where riders can travel the entire State safely,” commented John Pricher, Director of Discover Crystal River.

john pritcher discover crystal river
John Pritcher, Director of Discover Crystal River was in attendance. Image courtesy of Max Schulman Buendia.

This event was clearly a celebration of an extraordinarily well executed team effort that was blessed with a high level of cooperation.

A Well-Executed Team Effort with a High Level of Cooperation

David Gwynn from District 7 FDOT began by remarking that there were more folks in attendance at this trail opening than there had been for the Veterans Highway extension.  “Although the connector cost over $5 million dollars, it was a good investment,” Gwynn said. “Thanks to Commercial Industrial Corp for the project completing on time and under budget.  I know it’s something the community has wanted for a very long time. The trail connectivity in this region is clearly farther than the one mile we paved.”

withlacoochee dunnellon trail connector
Image of the Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Trail Connector by Florida Department of Transportation.

Gwynn also praised the methodology that was used for selecting the conveyance. By holding a session early in the project to listen to trails community, the government selected the underpass system to connect the two popular, but formerly distinct, trails. 

In addition to allowing the cyclists and runners to pass through without slowing down, the underpass design saved over $1M in construction and infrastructure configuration costs for when US41 is eventually widened. 

Finally, Gwynn noted that, “there were a lot of people who were integral in making this day happen and I can’t recognize them all.” He did specifically cite the Citrus and Marion County governments, the City of Dunnellon, and the Florida State Parks Division.

Trails and Florida State Parks are Big Business in Florida

DEP Acting Director, Chuck Hatcher, said that trails and parks are big business in and for Florida.  He emphasized how well respected and treasured the wonderful Florida State Parks are around the nation and across the oceans. (Florida State Parks are four-time winners of the National Gold Medal for State Parks!)

He highlighted the fact that this connector adds another piece to the Cross Florida Greenway with its five existing but separate sections of paved bike trails that make the community healthier. Mr. Hatcher was clearly bursting with pride about his team’s contribution and the overall success of the project. He said, “it’s amazing what this trail does to enhance our existing state trails. With this trail in place, the Heart of Florida Trail is one step closer to completion.” 

Florida State Parks had a booth at the Grand Opening of the Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Trail Connector. Attendees were ecstatic to celebrate the project’s completion. Image courtesy of Max Schulman.

The trail crowd was buzzing at the promise that that statement embodies – more connector projects will come to Central Florida.  The Heart of Florida Loop is a concept that is blessed but not yet fully funded.  It is one of a half dozen projects that will connect community trails from the west coast of Florida to the east coast. With the tidal wave of e-bikes that are appearing, connecting distances is a big factor. It promises growth in Florida ecotourism and biking.

The Heart of Florida Loop is a Dream of this Group, Connecting Several Disparate Trails throughout the State

Citrus County Commissioner, Ron Kitchen, was a man wearing a smile of vindication. In 2017, he and other members of the BOCC were criticized for raising issues with the underpass concept based on safety concerns of residents. The Board wisely asked the State for a study which included input from the local residents. His remarks were short and positive, praising the teamwork and cooperation that enabled this successful project completion.

construction of underpass
Filling the trench area where the underpass segments were placed in July of 2021. Image courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation.

Dunnellon Mayor, Bill White, nailed the spirit of the day with his comments, praising the entire effort as ‘Government as good as it gets.’ “Government delivered something special by listening to the community. This is a great economic opportunity for Dunnellon and the surrounding communities.

White was very hopeful that the teamwork of the state, county and city would continue with future projects.  Those in attendance clearly concurred.

Marion County Commissioner, Carl Zalak, III, said, “Governmental teamwork contributes to communities growing closer together.” He and his counterparts have observed that many connector-trail projects do that very well.

cyclists on withlacoochee-dunnelloon trail connector
Cyclists enjoying the new trail connector. Image courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation.

Former Citrus County Commissioner Rebecca Bays spoke about the positive financial impact multiuse trails bring to our counties and the local communities surrounding them.

She echoed the praise of most speakers for the extraordinary teamwork that finally brought this dream to life… and shared the history that backs that up.

Former Commissioner Bays got the crowd’s attention when she pointed out that the taxes haven’t been paid since 1968 on the 9.5-acre parcel next to the existing Dunnellon Trail land and suggested that Citrus County petition to acquire title and create a short spur to make downtown Dunnellon accessible.

Withlacoochee-Dunnellon connector Trail Map
Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Connector Trail Map, courtesy of Max Schulman

Support from Many Government Agencies and Elected Officials helped the Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Trail Connector to become a Reality

Speaking on behalf of State Representative Ralph Massullo, District Senior Aide Dorothy Dilworth read the following statement, “Since I was first elected in 2016, President Simpson and I, along with stakeholders and the Florida Department of Transportation, have worked hard for this bypass. It is a pleasure to see it open and have my office be a part of this celebration. The bypass will improve ecotourism in our area and provide another opportunity for our residents to enjoy the beauty of the Nature Coast.”

“The completion of this connector has been long awaited. The connector has been one of hottest topics of discussion among both locals and tourists. Cycling tourists are known to spend more money locally than other tourists. They enjoy small towns, locally owned restaurants, and mom and pop retail shops. This addition will be a great boost for our local economy,” commented Sherry Bechtel, President of the Friends of The Withlacoochee Trail.

Can you say, “Happy?” This image shows some of the joy that was part of this event. Image courtesy of Max Schulman.

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