Over the objections of the Missouri Farm Bureau, the federal government has opened the way for converting an unused railroad corridor into a new cross-state hiking and biking trail.
The Surface Transportation Board issued its ruling Thursday, affecting more than 144 miles of the former Rock Island Railroad. Other than a less-than-1-mile section east of Pleasant Hill, the rail corridor newly approved for trail use stretches from Windsor to Beaufort.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources plans to build a trail sometime after the rails are removed and funding is found for the project.
Agreements still must be worked out between the state and a subsidiary of the utility Ameren Missouri, which is donating the land for trail use.
Once approved, some sections of the trail could open in as soon as a couple of years, said Brent Hugh at the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation. But it could take decades to finish the job.
Once complete, the Rock Island Trail would connect with the Katy Trail at Windsor, creating a 450-mile network.
Previous federal action opened the way for a trail from Windsor to Pleasant Hill, where it would connect with the metrowide trail system in Kansas City.
Communities along the corridor east of Windsor recently formed a coalition in support of a trail, saying it would be both a boon for tourism and a way to rid their towns of blight.
In the more than 30 years since the trains stopped rolling, the area around the rusted tracks has become choked with weeds and a magnet for litter and illegal dumping.
“This is very exciting news and moves us one step closer to a trail,” Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc. said in a Facebook post.
Likewise, Ameren praised the board’s decision.
“If converted to a trail,” the company said, “this would be one of the longest bike trails in the country, and if connected with the Katy Trail would be one of the longest bike trails in the world.”
But not everyone was pleased with either the board’s action or Ameren’s donation. Those opponents include many of the 1,200 land owners with property adjoining the right of way.
The Missouri Farm Bureau had asked the Surface Transportation Board to delay its decision until there were more hearings held and more study done, but the board denied that request.
The Farm Bureau said a trail would be disruptive to adjoining farm operations and limit farmers’ access to their land.
Court decisions give landowners the right to sue the federal government for compensation when rail lines are converted to trail use. More than 200 property owners along the Rock Island corridor are represented by the Arent Fox law firm, which specializes in making such claims.