Government & Politics

Rock Island Line trail project is filled with promise — and obstacles

Jackson County’s purchase of an inactive rail corridor could open the way for a Katy Trail connection to Kansas City. These railroad tracks from the old Rock Island Line run right behind the Raytown Chamber of Commerce, yet they’re nearly invisible amid all the foliage. But chamber president Vicki Turnbow is able to show where the tracks are. The building is at 5909 Raytown Trafficway.
Jackson County’s purchase of an inactive rail corridor could open the way for a Katy Trail connection to Kansas City. These railroad tracks from the old Rock Island Line run right behind the Raytown Chamber of Commerce, yet they’re nearly invisible amid all the foliage. But chamber president Vicki Turnbow is able to show where the tracks are. The building is at 5909 Raytown Trafficway.

Addy Martin is not entirely sure when he erected that chain-link security fence across the rusty railroad tracks running alongside his commercial property in Lee’s Summit. Fifteen years ago, maybe?

But ask him why he fenced off the tracks without asking permission and he doesn’t apologize.

“Gotta keep the two-legged varmints out,” the general contractor says.

And besides, it’s been more than three decades since trains quit running down the the Rock Island Line. What difference would a fence make?

Except now it does make a difference.

Recently, Martin and others who have encroached on the overgrown rail corridor through eastern Jackson County received stern letters from Union Pacific, which has owned the right of way since the mid-1990s.

Tear down the fences, Union Pacific said. Haul off the junk cars, the 50-gallon drums of waste oil and other stuff parked on or near the tracks between south Lee’s Summit and the Truman Sports Complex.

Because within a year, Jackson County expects to complete its $52 million purchase of the 17.7-mile corridor and begin construction on what would be the final leg of a cross-state hiking and biking path connecting Kansas City with St. Louis.

Officials have for years touted the Katy Trail connection as both a boon for recreation and the local economy, and it may well turn out that way.

But it’s also clear from The Star’s review of public records and interviews with project officials that there are far more daunting challenges:

▪ Regulatory hurdles: No rails-to-trail conversion is simple, even when the buyer has the full cooperation of the railroad that controls the corridor. Before this friendly sale can go through, the federal Surface Transportation Board must sign off on it after a complex process that could take six months to a year. Potential objections raised by owners of the 532 properties bordering the right of way could prolong things.

▪ Potential cost overruns: County officials estimate it will cost roughly $1 million a mile to convert the trash-strewn and overgrown rail corridor, which averages 100 to 200 feet wide over most of its length, into a trail safe and accessible for hikers and bicyclists. But they also acknowledge that there is no way of knowing what the final bill will be until work begins.

“We don’t know what we don’t know yet,” said Calvin Williford, the county staffer ramrodding the project.

▪ Lost connections: While 13 bridges along the route remain intact, at least two will likely be torn down and replaced over Chipman Road and Missouri 350. Another might have to be built due to a road realignment in Raytown several years ago.

Also, over the past three decades, both Lee’s Summit and Raytown have paved over some rail crossings and severed others, sometimes without permission from the railroad. Determining who will pay to reconnect the rail bed still must be negotiated.

▪ Environmental cleanup: Two separate preliminary environmental assessment reports, one conducted for Union Pacific in 2011 and the other for the county late last year, raise questions about toxic substances leaking from drums stored on the railroad right of way. They also cite possible contamination from adjoining business properties.

While those studies raised no major red flags, the latest report noted some areas of contamination for more review. No one knows how much it might cost to clean up any polluted areas and who will end up paying for that.

On top of all these uncertainties, design issues could also add to the trail’s estimated $16 million construction cost.

Still, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders figures all will be worked out by the time the county takes title.

“Our goal would be that the day that happens, we could begin turning dirt,” Sanders said last week, with the goal of having some parts of the trail open by 2017.

The county and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority announced at the end of September that they will share equally in financing the acquisition, which with interest will total something like $90 million over 30 years.

But trail construction is the county’s responsibility. County taxpayers will kick in $4.3 million to go along with a $10 million federal transportation grant awarded the project.

That doesn’t cover even the county’s most optimistic projections. So the Sanders administration is continuing to seek more outside support, an effort that suffered a disappointing blow about two weeks ago when the county lost out on a $13.4 million federal TIGER grant it had applied for without much notice.

“We’re going to continue to be aggressive in our pursuit of federal funding,” Williford said.

Longtime goal

Local efforts to secure the corridor for public use go back decades.

The Rock Island entered its death spiral in the 1960s. So by the time the Rock Island’s final bankruptcy wrapped up in 1980, trail advocates were already making plans.

“I’ve been trying to get some kind of bikeway on this corridor since the late 1970s,” said Pete Loughlin, a landscape architect with the Kansas City parks department until his retirement and now a member of the Raytown Main Street Association.

But acquiring the corridor through Jackson County wasn’t possible until the late 2000s, when Union Pacific gave up on ever re-establishing freight traffic on the line and Sanders made buying it a priority.

It wasn’t the corridor’s potential as a Katy Trail extension that intrigued him so much as his belief that the railbed might one day carry commuter trains from the suburbs to downtown. In 2009, he began promoting the corridor as a key element of a billion-dollar, multimodal transportation plan that included trains, express buses and the trail.

“This is the most cutting-edge, cost-effective transit plan in America,” he said at the time.

Sanders wasn’t able to move the larger plan forward because it will take agreements with multiple railroads. But he never quit talking to Union Pacific, which ultimately cut its asking price by more than half after years of talks.

Sanders hopes the purchase of the Rock Island will help restart talks with those other open railroads. But until there’s a breakthrough, the proposed trail will have the corridor to itself, and many along the route are just fine with that.

“The tracks are over there!” Vicki Turnbow, president of the Raytown Area Chamber of Commerce, said when a reporter stopped by recently trying to find the railroad once hailed by bluesman Lead Belly and British pop singer Lonnie Donegan as “a mighty good road.” That is, “if you can find it,” the song goes.

The rails are all but invisible beneath the branches, brush and fallen leaves immediately behind the chamber office at 5909 Raytown Trafficway. The part of the Rock Island Line that local taxpayers will be buying begins north of the stadiums near U.S. 40 and ends south of Missouri 291 in Lee’s Summit.

The corridor runs smack through the heart of Raytown, where civic and business leaders have been meeting off and on for years to decide how best to capitalize on the tourism the trail is expected to generate. A trailhead is anticipated for near 63rd Street and Raytown Trafficway, where travelers might stop to grab a bite or get their bikes fixed.

“It will be a good fit for Raytown,” Turnbow said.

It could be a good fit too, proponents believe, for the area in southeast Kansas City known as Knobtown, where more commercial development is planned. Plans are to realign the intersection of Noland Road and Missouri 350 there, which will likely mean taking down the rail bridge over Missouri 350 and replacing it with a new trail bridge. If commuter rail service is ever added, another bridge will be added.

Farther south, and through a century-old, 446-foot tunnel near the long-gone town of Vale, future trail users will one day reach another likely trailhead near View High Drive and Interstate 470. A developer plans to build a $200 million sports village and commercial complex there that will pair tournament-quality soccer fields with office and commercial development.

While that development would happen with or without the trail, Sanders sees the trail spurring growth all along the route.

“People want to live in communities with transportation options,” he said, “with green space and trail access. Those are important quality of life issues.”

Tight squeeze

City and county planners also see the county’s purchase of the trail as a benefit. It will help link their trail systems with others in the area and, in Lee’s Summit, get rid of at least one frustrating bottleneck.

For at least 15 years, that city has been wanting to widen Chipman Road where it narrows to one lane under the Rock Island roadbed. But that would have meant getting Union Pacific to allow Lee’s Summit to replace the one-lane tunnel that passes under the Rock Island tracks crossing over Chipman Road.

Until a stoplight was added a few years ago, eastbound and westbound cars would try to squeeze by each other, and not always successfully.

“There’s quite a bit of car paint on the sides there,” public works director Dena Mezger said.

Now it should be easier and maybe less expensive to do the project than it might have been, depending on what sort of bridge the county will require as a replacement.

Ballpark, Mezger said, is $2 million.

Removing landmarks like that tunnel won’t please everyone.

“I’m sad to lose anything that looks like it did a century ago,” said Clark Vance, who has chronicled all the bridges along that part of the Rock Island and beyond on a site called

But many residents who live near the corridor view the county’s acquisition with a sense of relief.

While not all are happy about strangers biking and walking behind their homes, it’s better than the alternative, Tom Townsend said.

He was one of those who built his house in a subdivision that butts up to the rail corridor. The Rock Island had ceased operations by then, but then a proposal to restore freight service was floated in the late 1990s.

“It seemed like there was a lot of fear, and kind of an exodus at the time,” Townsend said.

He didn’t move, but some did even after the immediate threat dissipated because the potential remained.

“What I feel good about now is I don’t think there’ll ever be a train, if the county gets it,” he said.

Even if commuter rail becomes a reality, which he thinks is far-fetched, current plans don’t have it coming as far south as his neighborhood.

It’s called The Crossing, named after a railroad crossing arm that’s no longer there.

“Yeah, how about that,” Townsend said. “Ironic.”

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks