Pioneers traveled through Kansas City bearing clothes, food and tools. They were willing to put thousands of miles on their wagons as they chased a better life to the west, following the Santa Fe, Oregon or California trails.
A plan to let folks follow in their footsteps was first sketched out 25 years ago on a few pieces of paper. The going has been slow, but trail advocates and designers now say walkers and cyclists just have a few years more to wait.
The 3-Trails Corridor will retrace old wagon swales where it’s possible and get close where it isn’t. Some stretches already exist, others await construction and some have recently been built, such as the Powder Mill Bridge in south Kansas City. In other places, existing trails will be used.
Starting in Sugar Creek, the trail will zigzag southwest for about 46 miles through Independence, Raytown, south Kansas City, Leawood, Overland Park and Olathe before ending in Gardner, where westward travelers went their separate ways.
If you haven’t heard about the trail, there’s probably a reason: Progress has come in tiny bits over many years.
Lou Austin and other trail advocates have been trying for decades to retrace those ancient dusty trails with a paved path.
“There was very little romance and history and teary eyes in this. This was very deadly, very methodical,” Austin said. “We are planning infrastructure.”
If you biked the trail one weekend this month, you would have been lonely: There weren’t many cyclists or walkers following the trail where it already exists.
You would have noticed the hills that punish your legs and reward you with a breeze. A stiff breeze would have roared past your ears as you rode over an interstate in Missouri, but some stretches where the Kansas corridor might run would astonish you with their silence.
You might have taken a wrong turn or three, trying to find a detour as you remembered that the trail awaits completion.
For the trail to get to this stage, and beyond, takes generous amounts of money, collaboration, time, happenstance and planning.
The groundwork for the trail was laid out more than 20 years ago as a bullet point in a list of goals set by trail enthusiasts in south Kansas City.
More recently a 10.5-mile stretch, broken into 16 segments, was laid out in the Pedestrian Intermodal Transportation Connector Plan, which was put together by two community improvement districts and Kansas City.
But that’s just a quarter of the corridor.
Supporters of the 3-Trails project wanted a plan that involved all the counties and cities through which the historic trail would run.
Now they’re going to get one.
The National Park Service is working with the Mid-America Regional Council, which acts as a conduit for federal money, to come up with a comprehensive plan.
The job was awarded to local designer Steve Rhoades of Vireo, a Kansas City design firm.
Rhoades expects to submit his plan to the National Park Service and to have it finalized by the end of next summer.
The National Park Service is involved because of the trail corridor’s history — Kansas City is one of only two places in the country where three national historic trails begin or end.
“That really is an unprecedented feature in Kansas City,” said Aaron Mahr, a park service superintendent whose jurisdiction includes the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails. “The trails are such an important component of the city’s identity.”
The park service already has been putting its brand on the trail. On the Missouri side, there are brown signs bearing trail logos and directional arrows running along the existing stretch of the corridor.
Some advocates of the 3-Trails Corridor, including former city councilman John Sharp, envision bike shops and cafes popping up as stops for cyclists, walkers, tourists and commuters.
Audrey Elder, a preservation consultant, emphasized the importance of locally owned businesses on the trail to attract tourists. She referenced a University of Cincinnati study that found a direct correlation between a home’s value and its proximity to a trail.
Austin said it was absolutely critical for the 3-Trails Corridor to intersect with the Katy Trail, which crosses much of Missouri. There are several places where that could happen.
Elder said the vaunted Katy was a “huge moneymaker,” an opinion borne out in a study conducted by Missouri State Parks.
The Katy extensions into Kansas City and the 3-Trails Corridor are still years away from completion, but local officials have already started planning for the extra traffic.
Mayor Matt Mallinson of Sugar Creek expects the 3-Trails Corridor to bring tourists into his town and said he thought the trail might attract a range of runners from high schoolers training for cross-country races to Olympians preparing for elite competition.
One likely location where the Katy and 3-Trails will meet is near downtown Raytown, where Blue Ridge Boulevard crosses over the rails. Public works acting director Katie Horner said the city hopes to have a trailhead near the intersection.
South Kansas City picks up the trail after Raytown and takes it to the state line. West of the border, the corridor’s route is murkier.
Luckily for the trail’s supporters, Johnson County features a network of paved trails running alongside creeks.
Rhoades, the trail designer, said a lot of the work in Johnson County would consist of connecting existing trails that ran close to the historic route. It’s unclear exactly where the Kansas section of the trail will be, but the Tomahawk Creek and Indian Creek trails align somewhat with the pioneers’ route.
Overland Park parks services director Greg Ruether said he is excited to work on it but added that “we haven’t really thought about where this trail would go.”
Gardner spokeswoman Daneeka Marshall-Oquendo said the city had participated in planning efforts for the trail concept but had not yet built anything.
“To our knowledege, none of the trail has been constructed,” she said. “The route has not been confirmed, and thus no cost estimates exist at this time.”
Rhoades was hesistant to attach a price tag to the project. He said money could come from a variety of sources, including federal grants.
“There’s a lot of different ingredients that would go into making the soup,” he said.
Some of the money for existing sections of the trail came from the 3-Trails Village Community Improvement District. The project has received financial aid from the National Park Service, federal Transportation Enhancement, MoDOT and Kansas City’s Public Improvements Advisory Committee.
Among the gaps in the corridor is a relatively expensive 0.6-mile stretch. It will take at least $1 million to ford a stream with a bridge and connect 91st and 93rd streets.
Construction continues in south Kansas City. The next stretch, from Bannister Road to a newly constructed police headquarters, is scheduled for completion in August.
The path’s potential was pitched recently to developers and real state agents in conjunction with a survey of Cerner workers. A stone’s throw from the trailway, the health care technology giant is building an office complex for an estimated 16,000 workers.
Almost all of the Cerner employees who responded to a recent survey said they drove to work, but 10 percent said they would prefer to commute on foot or by bike. Cerner has agreed to build a segment of the trail that runs along its campus.
“Whether downtown, in Brookside or out in Timbuktu, Americans today want that walkability,” Austin said.