TAMPA - Bill Jonson was driving across the Courtney Campbell Causeway one day when an idea hit him like a lightning bolt.
"It was as easy as falling off a log," Jonson said. The causeway would be a perfect candidate for Florida's Scenic Highway Program.
Now, 13 years later, he and other volunteers who worked on the project are about to see their long-held dream reach its conclusion. In November, the first phase of the Courtney Campbell Scenic Highway Trail will open to walkers, runners and cyclists.
Starting at a new trailhead along Ben T. Davis Beach, the trail will extend 5.4 miles along the south side of the causeway to the Hillsborough-Pinellas county line in Old Tampa Bay. A second phase on the Pinellas side will be completed in September 2015.
Even one piece of the dream that seemed too much to ask for is coming true: a new 3,500-foot pedestrian bridge running parallel to the existing State Road 60 bridge.
An early volunteer on the project, former Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, said she expected to settle for a catwalk-type trail extension built onto the side of the highway bridge.
"When they came back with this idea for a separate bridge just for bicycles and pedestrians, we said, 'Wow!" Saul-Sena recalled.
Jonson, a Clearwater City Council member, said he realized that Courtney Campbell could meet all the requirements for Scenic Highway designation: culture, nature - as in wildlife and plants - recreation, archeology, historical value and scenic vistas.
Still, a vision that at first seemed easy as falling off a log - getting the designation - really wasn't. Jonson, Saul-Sena and Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel started working on adding the causeway to the state scenic highways list in October 2000.
"It took years to accomplish that," Saul-Sena said. "The whole thing took much longer than anyone realized when we started."
In addition to the actual application, the volunteers had to lobby government officials and work with local governments to include the scenic highway designation in the city and county comprehensive growth plans.
"The main thing that took us a long time was that we were doing it on a voluntary basis," Jonson said. "If we had had the money, we could have hired a consultant and done it a lot faster."
Road signs designating the causeway a scenic highway have been in place for some time, along with sporadic stretches of asphalt trail. The new trail work will provide a continuous link from one side to the other and add the features originally envisioned. Comfort stations with covered tables, bike racks and trash cans will be sprinkled along the 8.9- mile trail route.
The project will cost more than $27 million, with the bulk of the funding - $24.8 million - coming from the Florida Department of Transportation.
The city of Tampa is building a new restroom and concession stand at Ben T. Davis Beach and repairing a seawall and will handle annual maintenance of the trail under a contract with the state transportation department. The URS Corp., an engineering firm, donated $64,000 worth of work on amenities for the trail.
The Courtney Campbell Scenic Highway Trail will be part of a regional trail system, Jonson said. Existing trails on both sides of the bay will be linked with new segments under construction or being planned. One new trail will run from Dale Mabry Highway and Interstate 275, through the West-shore business district, to Cypress Point Park. The park already is connected to the causeway by a paved utility road, known as the U-Trail.
On the Pinellas side, Druid Trail will be lengthened to connect to the Pinellas Trail, completing the link between the Causeway and Dunedin and Palm Harbor.
"This will not be one of the premier trails in the state of Florida; this will be one of the premier trails in the United States," said Ron Rotella, executive director of the Westshore Business Alliance, at a recent Hillsborough County Commission meeting.
Having a scenic highway in the Tampa Bay area will be a boon for the local economy, Jonson said. The attraction will be listed in state tourist brochures.
"If you're a tourist from Michigan, and you wonder, 'How should I drive?' If it's me, I'm going to drive on scenic corridor," Saul-Sena said.
Jonson said the trail also will be a magnet for young professional workers who local government leaders pine for but who often opt for hipper cities such as Seattle or Portland.
"I think it improves the general attractiveness of this area," he said, "especially to younger people who are bicyclists or joggers, who are working in IT industries and medical industries that we are targeting to be the base for our economic future."