Adding the next 143 miles fills a gap where there are no state parks, while connecting Kansas City to Missouri's largest state park at Lake of the Ozarks.

Supporters of Missouri’s Rock Island Trail left over 8,600 comments during a final study and public comment period conducted by the Missouri State Parks Department before proceeding on the statewide project to convert old railways to walking and cycling nature trails.

According to Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc. (MoRIT), a 501(c)(3) non-profit, a total of 8,685 comments described as “overwhelmingly positive” were submitted along with nine letters from municipalities and two area planning commissions. Adventure Cycling also submitted comments noting the trail’s international significance and major impact on tourism.

The trail aims to connect Kansas City to St. Louis, while integrating with the Katy Trail, for a total of 343 miles of trails for a goal of connecting smaller communities, encouraging economic development, and providing alternate paths of transportations.

“The trail will provide a safe, non-motorized alternative to an estimated 90 miles of parallel highways between towns. Examples include the 56 miles paralleling Highway 52 from Windsor to Eldon and 33 miles along Highways 28 and 50 from Belle to Beaufort,” according to a press release from MoRIT. “Horses and buggies may be allowed on the trail in the Versailles area where Groffdale Conference Mennonites now share the two-lane Highway 52 with motorists.”

The quest to create the Rock Island Trail began in 1993 with an application for a 197-mile segment from Kansas City to Owensville, but Union Pacific and Missouri Central Railroad, wholly owned by Ameren Missouri each secured segments from Kansas City to St. Louis. In 2012, Ameren transferred ownership to the State of Missouri for a 47-mile corridor between Pleasant Hill and Windsor. The trail opened for the first time as a state park in 2016, connecting to the 240-mile Katy Trail.

“While the first 199 miles of the Katy Trail corridor had to be purchased (Edward Jones Investments Founder Ted Jones gave the $200,000 in the late 1980s) Ameren is donating the next 143 miles. The year salvage to Beaufort is nearly completed,” the release stated. “The rails and ties are nearly all gone and the gravelly surface is being graded. The Surface Transportation Board deadline to sign an agreement to “rail-bank” the former railroad corridor for potential future use is February 21, 2018.”

Adding the next 143 miles fills a gap where there are no state parks, while connecting Kansas City to Missouri’s largest state park at Lake of the Ozarks. New businesses with trail names have already begun to spring up, according to MoRIT, and they include the Rock Island Village in Eldon, Rock Island Marketplace in Owensville, Rock Island Trail Retreat in Gerald, and Rock Island Station in Beaufort.

Eldon is also rebuilding an old railroad depot to serve as a welcome center, museum and offices for their Chamber of Commerce in large part due to a donor with local ties contributing $150,000 in matching funds for the project.

According to a 2012 study, the Katy Trail attracted 400,000 annual users and had a direct economic impact of more than $18 million per year and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce has noted significant economic growth in communities along the first 47 miles. However, the benefits appear to go mainly to businesses and not Missouri State Parks.

“Experience shows that adding the next 144 miles will have a 20:1 payoff for Missouri. However, businesses get that revenue, not Missouri State Parks. They are challenged to add this park while only expecting an increase in revenue from their 1/20 of 1% sales tax,” according to MoRIT. “The answer is to be more creative about partnerships with communities, individuals and philanthropists. Accepting the corridor is the first, necessary step, with further development happening as fast as funding allows.”