The Rock Island Trail is still years away from coming to Franklin County, but officials said there already is consideration for extending it to Union.

“There is some talk about it coming east to Union, with the rail-with-trail program,” Assistant City Administrator James Schmieder said at Thursday’s Union Development Corp. meeting. “They do have that existing right of way, and they have the right to use it.”

This means an eastward extension of the trail from the Beaufort trailhead would run beside rail lines.

Greg Harris, executive director of Rolla-based Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., said it is his understanding that when Ameren Missouri agreed to donate the 144-mile trail segment to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the agreement said any part of the trail that went east of Beaufort would need to run alongside the railroad tracks.

Even though the tracks between Union and Beaufort are largely used for train car storage, the tracks could not be removed, as they have been on the remainder of the trail corridor.

Schmieder, who is a director of Rock Island Trail’s board, said the trail would not involve removing the rail lines in Union and to the east that connect to St. Louis.

“This is going to take years to develop,” he said. “It’s exciting for the committee, but our interest is to protect our rail use going in.”

Supporters of rail trails are not looking to decommission railroads, Harris said. Instead, they want railroads no longer in service to continue to be used for the public.

“We’re not anti-railroad, we’re pro-railroad,” he said. “We’re trying to preserve these rail lines for future recreational use.”

The trail could, eventually, follow Highway 47 or another route north from Union to Washington, where it would cross the Missouri River on the new bike-friendly bridge, then connect to the Katy Trail in Dutzow.

With the existing 47.5-mile Rock Island Spur Trail between Windsor and Pleasant Hill, that would create a more than 400-mile loop between the Rock Island and Katy trails.

Currently, the trail is slated to go 144 miles west from Beaufort to Windsor. DNR plans to develop the public trail on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad corridor, on property developed by the Missouri Central Railroad Co., a subsidiary of Ameren Missouri.

The Rock Island Trail is estimated to cost between $86 million and $116 million, with the most expensive part refurbishing several tunnels and bridges, according to the Associated Press. The state does not have full funding lined up.

The national nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has advocated for decades to preserve the Rock Island corridor in Missouri, and plans to help channel federal funding toward the project, according to AP.

Issues like whether horses, and even in some places, horses pulling buggies in areas with large Amish and Mennonite populations, will be allowed on parts of the trail are expected to be discussed at three upcoming informational meetings, Harris said.

The closest one to Franklin County is scheduled for 5:30-7 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Scenic Regional Library Owensville Branch, 503 S. Olive St. in Owensville.