Government & Politics

Rock Island purchase moves KC closer to connecting with Katy Trail

Jackson County takes ownership Monday of an inactive rail right-of-way, which puts it close to linking KC with Missouri’s cross-state Katy Trail. The old Rock Island railroad bridge crosses over the entrance to the Truman Sports Complex at gate 4.
Jackson County takes ownership Monday of an inactive rail right-of-way, which puts it close to linking KC with Missouri’s cross-state Katy Trail. The old Rock Island railroad bridge crosses over the entrance to the Truman Sports Complex at gate 4. jsleezer@kcstar.com

They say it’s never easy brokering a deal with a railroad.

But seven years of negotiations with the Union Pacific finally will pay off Monday when Jackson County takes ownership of an inactive rail right-of-way, which puts it close to linking KC with Missouri’s cross-state Katy Trail.

Eventually, the corridor also could become spine of a commuter rail line connecting eastern Jackson County with Kansas City’s streetcar line, which begins operations Friday. But for now the decades-old goal of a Katy connection from Kansas City to St. Louis is a virtual certainty, with the county expecting to complete its trail section by spring 2018, if not earlier.

“The completion of the purchase of the Rock Island corridor sets the stage for our residents and workers to move in ways they never could before,” County Executive Frank White said. “This is an investment in our future, and our legacy to future generations.”

The Union Pacific railroad is set to hand over a 17.7-mile section of the former Rock Island Line at a 1 p.m. ceremony in front of three antique train cars at the UP’s Neff rail yard, 6400 Martin Ave.

Design and engineering work is expected to begin this fall, with construction starting in 2017 on a crushed gravel trail from the Truman Sports Complex to Hamblin Road north of Greenwood.

White’s chief of staff, Calvin Williford, is resigning that post to oversee the project as executive director of the Rock Island Rail Corridor Authority.

Williford said he first began meeting with UP officials in 2009 at the direction of former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders. It was Sanders who announced the purchase agreement last fall and since his resignation in January has been a paid consultant on call to help to complete the deal.

The county aims to use the corridor to connect the metro area’s existing trail system with a state-owned trail now being built between Pleasant Hill and Windsor. That’s where it connects with the Katy.

Gov. Jay Nixon says that 47-mile state trail will be done by fall.

That leaves a seven-mile gap separating the state trail from the one the county plans to build on the Rock Island right-of-way. Mark Randall, city administrator of Pleasant Hill, said Friday that his community has plans to fill half of what he calls the “Greenwood gap” with new and existing trails.

He said the county has pledged to finish the connection, although the exact route hasn’t been determined.

The Rock Island purchase is a partnership between Jackson County and the bi-state Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. Jackson County will be the sole owner of record. But Sanders convinced the ATA to share equally in the $50 million purchase price. With interest, bond payments will total about $84 million over 30 years.

The ATA’s involvement stems from its interest in developing the corridor for possible use as a commuter rail link to the downtown streetcar system. The ATA also sees the right-of-way as a possible route for Max-style bus rapid transit.

Averaging 100 to 200 feet wide, there’s more than enough room for the trail and motorized transit, officials say.

In the short term, the ATA will look for ways to raise cash, possibly from telecommunications companies that might want to run underground cables along the route, as well as other business opportunities.

An example, Williford said, is the ATA’s project at Third Street and Grand Boulevard, where developers plan to build an office building and transit hub on the site of an ATA parking lot. Something like that might also be built at the trail head along the Rock Island.

The county alone is responsible for building the trail, estimated to cost about $1 million a mile. County officials have most of that in hand thanks to a $10 million federal grant and $4 million in county funds they’ve set aside in recent years. More federal grants are being sought.

No tax increases are anticipated to cover the cost of trail construction or the purchase, county officials have stressed.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks

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