Trail enthusiasts were pleased with the signing of a bill that opens the door to private funding for the Rock Island Trail.
Gov. Mike Parson signed Senate Bill 196 Wednesday, July 10, which created the Rock Island Trail State Park endowment fund.
The bill states it “shall be used by the Department for the purpose of operating, maintaining, developing, and securing any portion of the former Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad corridor.” The bill goes into effect Aug. 28.
The 144-mile stretch of vacant railroad connects Beaufort in Franklin County to Windsor, located in Henry and Pettis counties. Ameren wants to donate the land to Missouri State Parks.
Greg Harris, director of Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., a nonprofit organization in support of the trail, said the language of the bill helped clear another hurdle in gathering funding: federal grants.
“In the past when we were seeking grants, we were told by Missouri State Parks that we couldn’t apply for recreational grants,” Harris said. “As soon as the bill was signed and becomes law, those grants can be applied for again.”
The Recreational Trails Program and the Land and Water Conservation Fund each have about $1-1.5 million in grant funds that can be used to help create the trails. Harris, who’s been working on getting the Rock Island Trail completed for four years, said that the state can apply for funds from each program if and when Missouri State Parks accepts Ameren's donation of land.
The bill allows funding from both public and private sources.
Harris said the trail will have about 90 miles near highways and about another 30 miles are within city limits on the trail. There are 18 cities on the trail between Beaufort and Windsor, and Harris has been traveling to each one to speak with government officials and local residents. He said that he would like to see cities help pay to clear the vegetation and build guardrails within the 30 miles of trail inside of city limits.
The trail’s land is still being negotiated as a donation from Ameren. There is an Aug. 20 deadline for the Missouri State Parks to accept Ameren’s donation. Harris said Ameren and Missouri State Parks are currently negotiating terms.
According to Harris, Ameren has already put up fencing near intersections and added concrete barriers across bridges and tunnels. Track was removed during the summer in 2018.
“The fact that negotiations have been going on is a positive,” Harris said. “Towns will see an economic impact and improvement in quality of life. The trail will help attract new residents and business.”
Using the Katy Trail as an example, the economic impact should be a positive. According to the Katy Trail Economic Impact Report, conducted in 2012, it was estimated that the trail generated $18,491,000 a year in revenue from nearly 400,000 annual visitors. It also supported 367 jobs.
That report stated the Katy Trail, “has been a catalyst for tourism development, and many small businesses depend on the trail for an ongoing stream of customers.”
The Katy Trail is 240 miles long, and the Rock Island Trail would connect to it at Windsor creating over 400 miles of trails. Harris said it would be a one-of-a-kind loop that connects the St. Louis and Kansas City regions. He also added that it would help bring even more people from around the world and the country to Missouri.
Joe Ferguson, owner of Revolution Cycles in Washington, agreed.
“It would increase Washington’s attractiveness to tourism in general,” Ferguson said. “I think it would be a big boost.”
Ferguson said that the new trail would be a great addition to the Katy Trail.
“It will offer people who live here another way to easily utilize a trail to enjoy the scenery,” Ferguson said.
Harris is hopeful that with the passage of the bill, the trail will have a chance to be used in the future.
“That bill was passed with almost unanimous support in the House and the Senate,” Harris said. “We were shown lots of support, which we’re thrilled with.”
Currently, Rock Island Trail has 47 miles of usable trail referred to as the Rock Island Spur of Katy Trail State Park. It runs from Pleasant Hill, a suburb near Kansas City, to Windsor.
The additional 144-mile stretch of the Rock Island Trail has been in development since 2016.
At the time, Gov. Jay Nixon announced plans to turn the potential stretch of the old Rock Island rail line into a state biking-hiking trail.
At issue, parks officials say, is the potential cost of developing the corridor into something similar to the long-established Katy Trail and its effect on the state’s financial ability to operate its many existing parks, according to the report.
In November 2018, hundreds from across Missouri attended public meetings hosted by Missouri State Parks to help determine the fate of the trail.
Public feedback at the meetings was overwhelmingly positive, mirroring the sentiment of the nearly 9,000 comments — nearly unanimous in their support for the project — that were previously submitted to the state in the summer of 2017.