The 240-mile Katy Trail each year attracts 400,000 visitors, who pump nearly $20 million into Missouri’s economy.
Now come plans to add a companion cross-state trail that, when combined with the Katy, would be an even bigger draw, trail advocates say.
Together, the Katy and the proposed Rock Island Trail would create a 400-mile loop unrivaled in the United States. Not only would it create new recreational opportunities, but it also would boost commerce in struggling, rural areas along the proposed hiking and biking path.
“We think it’s a huge thing, not just for the individual communities, but the entire state,” said trail advocate Mac McNally.
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However, it’s far from a sure thing. While the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy recently tendered what it considers a strong bid to buy a 145-mile section of the abandoned Rock Island line east of Windsor, there are no guarantees.
The owner of that unused rail corridor, St. Louis-based Ameren Corp., has given no clue when it will select the winning bid among an undisclosed number of proposals. Conceivably, the corridor, which was put up for sale this spring, could be sold to commercial buyers interested mainly in selling the steel rails as scrap.
Which would mean it could be decades before the corridor would become available for trail development again, if ever.
However, if the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy comes out on top, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group plans to turn the corridor over to the state’s park system for development of a trail that was first proposed more than 20 years ago.
The Rock Island Trail would create more recreational opportunities by linking Kansas City and St. Louis with the Lake of the Ozarks area. And proponents say it also would be welcome payback to small towns like Eldon, Versailles and Owensville, whose economies suffered when they lost rail service more than three decades ago.
“This would be a global tourist destination,” Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, said of the combined trail. “No other state is going to have this kind of system.”
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Alan Voss would be mighty pleased if even a portion of the trail gets built — specifically the section that’s already in the works between Windsor and Pleasant Hill, where he and his wife, Laura, opened the New Town Bicycle and Coffee Shop more than a year ago.
It’s the main reason they located the shop there.
“I was hoping it would have been here by now,” Voss said of the trail. “It’s been a long time coming.”
That 46-mile stretch of the Rock Island corridor is separate from the piece that was put up for bid this year, but it’s key to that proposal.
Ameren agreed in a 2007 court settlement to grant the state permission to build a trail along that western segment of the former Rock Island line, which would connect the Kansas City area with the Katy at Windsor.
So far, just over three of those 46 miles have been converted into a trail. To develop the rest of it, the state needs approval from the federal agency that regulates abandoned rail rights of way. That could come later this year.
State officials declined to speculate on a timetable for construction, but Hugh said “we could see an official grand opening on at least part of it pretty quickly” once the feds give the go-ahead.
There are also plans to extend the trail even farther to the west, into Kansas City. Earlier this year, Jackson County announced it negotiated an option to purchase 17.7 miles of the Rock Island right of way that would continue the trail from near Pleasant Hill to a spot near the Truman Sports Complex.
That segment is now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad Co. If the county can raise the nearly $60 million purchase price from the federal government and other sources, that corridor might also someday be a route for commuter trains.
Local officials would be thrilled to have that connection to the Katy, but they are also excited at this new prospect of possibly extending the Rock Island Trail east of Windsor to create the 400-mile looped trail system.
“It’s a great, great opportunity for Missouri,” Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said.
Ameren bought the Rock Island corridor through Missouri from Pleasant Hill to St. Louis in 1999 with the intent of restoring freight rail service that ended when the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad went out of business almost 35 years ago.
But the Ameren-owned Missouri Central Railroad Co. never ran trains except on the far eastern end of the line.
All the same, Ameren’s sudden decision to solicit bids for the largest single chunk of the line, in the center of the state, surprised trail advocates. Representatives from towns along the rail line had been in talks with Ameren for a couple of years about converting the corridor to trail use.
In March, they formed a corporation, Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., or MoRIT for short. Their long-term goal was to build a trail along the entire 145-mile section between Windsor and just east of Owensville.
But in the short term, they wanted control over the overgrown, unkempt corridor that ran through their communities.
During one authorized cleanup in Eldon in 2012, “we had hundreds of dump trucks of trash hauled out,” McNally said.
But three months after filing incorporation papers, MoRIT President Chrysa Niewald learned that Ameren had sent out requests for proposals on the 145-mile section without consulting her group. And when she requested bid documents, she wasn’t given access to the confidential material other potential bidders were privy to.
In a letter to the Missouri Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, Niewald accused Ameren of acting in bad faith and sent copies to Gov. Jay Nixon, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and other officials.
“Within a day or two after that letter went out,” Niewald said, “they started talking to us … In the end, Ameren did come around.”
A spokesman for Ameren denied that Niewald’s group was shut out of the process early on and said the company was happy to extend the deadline by two weeks so that trail backers had time to submit a bid.
At the last minute, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy came to the rescue with what the group’s president, Keith Laughlin, describes only as an “eight-figure” offer.
Warren Wood, Ameren’s vice president for external affairs and communications, has been meeting with trail advocates. In an interview, he said he was impressed by the 11,000 comments in support of a trail that the company has received.
“Ameren recognizes the interest in these bike trails,” he said.
Whether that recognition could weigh in favor of the trail bid, however, is anyone’s guess. Wood declined to say.
But Laughlin suggests that Ameren surely recognizes it would score some points with the public by supporting the trail bid.
“The good will definitely has some monetary value,” he said.