Opportunities like the 144-mile Rock Island Trail don’t come along very often. Missouri should seize this one.
The Ameren power company has offered to donate a stretch of rail line to the state of Missouri for use as a hike and bike trail. The trail stretches from Windsor in western Missouri to Beaufort in the eastern part of the state.
Once this span is paired with the Katy Trail, Missourians could enjoy a nearly 400-mile loop in the heart of the state, complete with stunning river views, tunnels and soaring bridges that advocates say would blossom into an international showcase and a tourist draw. The network would form one of the longest rail-to-trail networks in the country.
The Katy Trail running south and just north of Interstate 70 already is a destination for families and the outdoors-minded. Adding the Rock Island Trail “super-sizes it,” said Bill Bryan, the former Missouri State Parks director.
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As appealing as all this sounds, the administration of Gov. Eric Greitens is thinking hard about whether to accept Ameren’s offer. Even acquisition advocates acknowledge that the Rock Island Trail would cost the state tens of millions of dollars. The trail itself would have to be built. Bridges would need to be made safe for hikers and bikers. Tunnels would have to be secured.
All that won’t come cheap, and completing the project would take years, just as the Katy Trail did.
“The Rock Island Trail project stands to be a significant undertaking, and it is essential to understand the immediate and long-term liabilities, costs, benefits and opportunities specific to this project,” Connie Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said in a statement.
The Greitens administration is gauging public support for the project through a survey on the Department of Natural Resources’ website that will remain open until Thursday. Our recommendation: Missourians should light it up with supportive comments.
What a rare opportunity to acquire an asset that will endure for generations. Once it’s completed, a family could travel the trail for 10 or 12 days and take in Royals and Cardinals games along the way once expected spurs into Kansas City and St. Louis are completed.
And what a trip it would be. The beauty of the Katy Trail, with its nearly $19 million annual economic impact, is well-documented. The Rock Island would add three tunnels — two of them are so long you can’t see daylight — as well as a nearly 1,800-foot bridge that ascends to 100 feet above the Gasconade River.
One problem the state faces, Bryan said, is it really doesn’t know how much it would cost to make the Rock Island Trail user-ready. The state must obtain access to the trail to size it up.
At the same time, Missourians must convince a dubious governor that this is an asset that’s worth the investment. That means hitting the survey website hard and contacting lawmakers.
When the Katy Trail was undergoing a similar review in the 1980s, a pair of game-changing advocates came to its aid. Republican Gov. John Ashcroft was a major booster. Ted Jones, the son of the founder of Edward Jones Investments, donated millions for land acquisition.
Today, the Rock Island Trail has neither a governor in its corner nor a benefactor. That adds a layer of uncertainty to its future. Now the question is whether rank-and-file Missourians will close that gap by voicing their support.