Is Rock Island trail in jeopardy? Federal ruling puts Jackson County on defensive

Jackson County on Tuesday received a swift kick in its caboose.

It’s a blow, landed by federal regulators, that affects the 17.7-mile Rock Island corridor hiking and biking path now being developed between Lee’s Summit and the Truman Sports Complex. Whether it jeopardizes the long-awaited trail, or in what manner, remains an open question.

For more than a year, a handful of landowners have argued in both federal and circuit court that Jackson County railroaded them when, in 2016, it took possession of the 17.7-mile stretch of the long-defunct Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad corridor to build a “multi-use” trail. Adjacent landowners maintain that they should have been paid for those portions of their land that the railroad had once used.

Since the railroad is gone, the plaintiffs say, the rights to that land should have reverted to the current landowners. They maintain that if the land were acquired for a walking and biking trail, landowners had a constitutional right, under the Fifth Amendment, to be justly compensated.

Jackson County, meantime, has argued that no constitutional rights have been violated. In 2016, the county established its own railroad, called the Rock Island Rail Corridor Authority. When it paid the rail’s then-owner, Union Pacific Railroad, $52 million for a quitclaim deed to the corridor, the property and it rights of way were transferred from one railroad company to another. It says it owed the purported property owners nothing.

But on Tuesday, a federal railroad regulatory agency known as the Surface Transportation Board took the county to task.

The agency noted that when the board, in 2016, agreed to the transfer of the corridor from Union Pacific to Jackson County’s newly formed rail authority, it was under the belief that Jackson County could fulfill what are known as “common carrier obligations.”

In other words, Jackson County was free to build a bike or jogging path alongside the rail line, but if a customer suddenly decided that it wanted to haul freight along the corridor, the county would be obligated to supply a rail line to do so.

In promoting the project to Jackson County taxpayers, former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said that the corridor may one day even support a commuter rail line to transport Kansas City Royals and Chiefs fans to and from the stadiums. and perhaps one day, even into downtown.

A rendering of a possible stop along the Rock Island Corridor. Parsons Brinkeroff

Except now, as the federal board noted in its Tuesday ruling, photographs presented by the landowners, through Kansas City attorneys Tom Stewart and Elizabeth McCulley, clearly show that there are no tracks on the corridor. They have been torn up. The rail bed now holds a gravel hiking and biking trail expected to be finished in a year or so.

“Additionally,” the board noted, “one of the pictures shows a tunnel, and it is not clear if the rail line continues through that tunnel or if the tunnel can accommodate both a trail and a rail line.”

The agency is asking Jackson County to account for itself, and how it expects to fulfill its obligation as a rail carrier without any rails. The board has opened a proceeding and given the county until Feb. 25 to address the board’s concerns.

“If Jackson County is placing the trail on the rail bed where the track should be located,” the board wrote, “the County must explain how this activity is consistent with acquiring a rail line on which it has a common carrier obligation. The County should also explain if its intentions toward freight rail service have changed since filing its verified notice.”

The Star sought comment from Jackson County Executive Frank White and from Matt Davis, the program coordinator for the county’s Rock Island Corridor Authority. County spokeswoman Marshanna Hestor responded in an email: ”As a matter of policy, Jackson County does not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”

Stewart, the plaintiffs’ attorney, called the board’s ruling “a bad sign for Jackson County.”

“I think it’s a serious issue that Jackson County is now going to have to confront,” Stewart said.

If the board revokes the county’s status as a common carrier, he said, his clients’ cases in both federal and Jackson County Circuit Court would be strengthened.

“If it is revoked,” Stewart said in an email, “the whole house of cards comes tumbling down, and Jackson County is trespassing and will be forced to tear up even what they have already constructed.”

Or, Stewart said, the county could pay the six adjacent landowners who sued over the land the trail is using. How much landowners might receive is undetermined.

Another option for the county would be the way the vast majority of rail-to-trails projects are created in the United States: railbanking. Missouri’s 240-mile Katy Trail was created using that process.

With railbanking, established in 1983 as an amendment to the National Trails System Act, a corridor’s tracks and ties may get pulled up, but the corridor itself is still part of the national rail system. It still exists, essentially is “banked,” in the event that the nation needs it for future rail use without having to go to the cost and trouble of again acquiring or purchasing expensive property and rights of way.

If the Rock Island Trail is eventually railbanked, adjacent landowners would be compensated for their land by the federal government and not by county taxpayers.

“If they really want this land, there is an easy solution right at their fingertips,” Stewart said of Jackson County. “They should pursue the Trails Act, which we have been telling them for years. The only other option is for Jackson County to exercise their own condemnation rights and pay our landowners. That’s what it’s going to come down to. So it is getting our landowners closer to being paid.”

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