Whoever came up with the phrase, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” surely was thinking of something akin to the offer that Missouri officials are now weighing.
The state and Gov. Mike Parson have until Feb. 21 to decide whether to accept a 144-mile stretch of the old Rock Island rail line running south of Interstate 70. The hiking and biking trail, when completed, would mesh with the nearby Katy Trail to create an unmatched recreational opportunity that would showcase Missouri’s mid-state beauty.
In fact, Missouri would emerge as “the national leader in trail-oriented outdoor recreation,” a study by the University of Missouri Extension concluded. The Katy Trail already ranks as the nation’s longest.
One author of the study that was completed in October for a group advocating for the acquisition said researchers struggled to find any reason to reject the proposal.
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Another advocacy group, the Washington-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, calls the proposed donation “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
A no-brainer, indeed. The study reported on the overwhelming support for the idea based on comments filed with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The trail fits the state’s outdoor recreation plan; it’s an exceptional economic development opportunity; and the state already has experience developing rail corridors, thanks to the work done completing the much-loved Katy Trail.
What’s more, the report noted, the price is right. To complete the Katy Trail, the state had to purchase much of the land. With the Rock Island, Ameren is willing to donate the property, saving the state millions.
Former Gov. Jay Nixon, an avid outdoorsman, deserves credit for kick-starting this project. He joined with Ameren two years ago to announce the pending transfer of the Rock Island line. The administration of former Gov. Eric Greitens slowed things down shortly after he was elected with a call to study the project’s potential costs and benefits.
Meantime, advocacy groups, such as the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, went to work, advocating for the state to accept Ameren’s offer. According to the extension report, only the Missouri Farm Bureau remains opposed, citing the potential disruption to nearby farms.
State officials are concerned that the cost of developing the new trail would siphon away money for maintenance of the state’s existing parks. Last year, officials estimated the cost of completing the trail at $65 million to $85 million. But Greg Harris, executive director of Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., has said that the state could begin with a minimal investment, then work with towns along the corridor to gradually develop the trail over any number of years.
“There’s no rush to do any significant development or development at all,” Harris said. “The most important thing is just accepting it.”
Officials maintain that even then, the state would incur significant costs just to keep the trail monitored and safe.
Still, this remains an extraordinary opportunity, and Missouri would be foolhardy to walk away from such an incredible asset. The state already is operating on a year-long extension to consider the donation. It could seek another extension as well.
But, to coin a phrase, why look a gift horse in the mouth?