Several groups wanting to develop the Rock Island Trail railroad path recently held a rally at the Capitol in Jefferson City.
Most of the trail, which is owned by Ameren, has been abandoned for decades. The utility giant purchased the line in the 1990’s with the intention of hauling coal through the corridor. An eastern portion is still being utilized by rail traffic.
Now, Ameren wants to donate a lengthy 144 stretch of its path to the state for what it calls a “possible trail resource”. The site Abandoned Rails calls it “one of the longest continuous disused rights-of-way in the country”. Ameren is still working through the process of railbanking the corridor, where railroad tracks and ties are pulled up.
Greg Harris with the non-profit Missouri Rock Island Trail, one three groups hosting the rally, says the pathway is usable in its current condition. “If you go along the corridor, it looks like a dirty gravel road right now, which would be a great place to hike or mountain bike or ride a horse on” said Harris.
Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy also took part in sponsoring the rally. Brandi Horton with Rails-to-Trails says the purpose of the rally was to nudge the state to accept Ameren’s donation of the corridor.
“We want the corridor to be accepted, and then build the best trail for the communities involved” said Horton. “We have rail trails all over the country that have all different types of services…paved, gravel. People use them. They love them.”
In December, out-going Governor Jay Nixon announced that the corridor was set to be transferred to the state by the end of this year for eventual use as a bike trail. Since then, current Governor Eric Greitens has put the brakes on the transfer to conduct cost-benefit studies of its long-term impact on the state.
The Department of Natural Resources, which is charged with deciding whether to accept the corridor, is currently collecting public comments about the project.
The plan isn’t without its critics. The Missouri Farm Bureau opposes the conversion of all rail corridors under current law. The Farm Bureau’s Leslie Holloway says landowners, who originally agreed to property easements for the railroad, have been left out of the decision making process.
“The landowner is in no way consulted” said Holloway. “And in fact the only alternative that the landowner has is to file a claim in federal court for compensation for the taking of the property. Because that what it is, a taking of the property under the U.S. Constitution.”
Holloway says the Farm Bureau also opposes using the Rock Island corridor for recreation in particular, citing a potential negative impact on local residents. “(It’s) because of the potential importance for that rail line to rural communities along that route.”
The Rock Island project would be designated as an “interim use agreement”, meaning provisions are in place to return the route to railroad use if need be. Holloway admits such a scenario would be very rare, if it’s ever even happened.
Other critics of the corridor project are concerned about its impact on taxpayers if it were to be further developed. The cost of paving the route is anywhere from $5,000-to-$50,000 per mile depending in the terrain. The existing Katy Trail, which would connect with the completed Rock Island Trail in two spots was financed through a mix of public money, private donations and federal grants.
According to Missouri State Parks, the Katy Trail has been a money maker for the state. Its 2012 study showed 400,000 annual visitors to Katy Trail State Park had a total economic impact of $18,491,000 a year, which supports 367 jobs with a total payroll of $5,128,000.
Harris with Rock Island Trail says converting the corridor to a paved route is the eventual goal of its proponents. “That would be our ultimate goal at this point. But the first phase would be to use everything we can as it is.”
Overall, the Rock Island Trail would offer a somewhat different experience for travelers than the Katy Trail. While the Katy Trail follows the Missouri River and passes by towns, the Rock Island path along the rail line would travel over bridges, through tunnels and into the centers of towns.
Horton with Rails-to-Trails says railroad conversions are so popular, visitors come from all over the country and the world. “People absolutely love the tunnels and the bridges. Going over a train trestle bridge is one of the most epic things on a bike or walking to do. You get so close to both our infrastructure history, but also just nature. You get these views that you don’t get when you’re in a car.”
The state Department of Natural Resources is currently taking public comment on the proposed 144 mile portion Rock Island Trail project.
The first 47 miles of the trail opened last December, connecting with the Katy Trail at Windsor.