Interest was high in turning the old line into a trail that would connect with the Katy Trail, another former rail line, creating a large loop across the state that could make it the longest continuous trail in the United States.

After nearly four years of review and negotiation, hope continues for those in favor of turning the Rock Island Railroad corridor into a cross-state trail. Missouri State Parks and Missouri Central Railroad have applied for another extension of an interim trail use agreement while the state continues to study the potential for turning the 144-mile defunct line between Windsor and Beaufort into a recreational trail.

The project was facing a deadline of Feb. 21, 2019. If approved, the extension would give the state and railroad 180 more days to come to a decision. 

The majority of the Rock Island Railroad has been out of service since the mid-1980s after being built in the first years of the 1900s.

Since an initial Notice of Interim Trail Use was approved by the federal Surface Transportation Board on Feb. 25, 2015, there have been multiple extensions, putting off a decision on the railbanking project that would allow the out-of-service line to be acquired by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources from right-of-way owner Missouri Central Railroad. A subsidiary of Ameren, MCR has offered to transfer the right-of-way for use as a trail at no cost to the state. MCR began the process of abandoning the line in 2014. 

Interest was high in turning the old line into a trail that would connect with the Katy Trail, another former rail line, creating a large loop across the state that could make it the longest continuous trail in the United States.

Over the years of consideration, Missouri State Parks (operating under the DNR umbrella) has received numerous comments via public hearings and other communications in favor of the Rock Island Trail for various reasons — economic development through greater outdoor tourism opportunities, enhancing alternatives for alternative transportation as well as generally promoting healthy living and historic and environmental preservation.

They have also received concerns regarding disruption of farms along the line and the cost for development and maintenance.

According to Missouri State Parks Deputy Director of Administration Mike Sutherland, the complexity of the project has required a lot of time to do due diligence on behalf of taxpayers and those living along the path of the old rail line.

“During the time frame of this project being discussed we’ve had three administration changes so there’s always a new discussion, but it’s also important to take a very deliberate approach. This is a significant project with significant ramifications, in positive ways and in challenges,” said Sutherland. “We want to make sure we’ve explored every option.”

State Rep. David Wood (R-Versailles), a Lake area representative who has significant constituency along the Rock Island corridor, sees the extension as a positive sign for those who want the trail, acknowledging that many proponents in his communities are eagerly and anxiously anticipating the project just as there are those who are not so excited.

“When the trail was first being discussed, [then] Gov. Nixon was very supportive, but there were no studies done that really needed to be done in terms of impact,” said Wood. “I think the extension is probably positive for those wanting the trail. If [the state administration] really didn’t want it, they wouldn’t have asked for an extension, they would have just said no. I think this administration is not necessarily saying no, but are extremely cautious.”

An October 2018 opportunity analysis of the project by the Pat Curry and Martha Bass of the University of Missouri Extension supported the state’s acceptance of the project, calling it “an opportunity to do something extraordinary, something that will have long term positive impacts on the State for generations.” The study found largely positive public support from more than 8,500 comments submitted to the state, alignment with the state outdoor recreation plan and according to their numbers, “exceptional economic development opportunity.”

The study cited the free acquisition of land, high and increasing demand for trail-oriented recreation and the need for an economic boost through many of the communities along the old rail line, including negative population growth in Morgan County and declining retail sales across the region. The poverty rate in the rail line communities was 26.9 percent in 2016 compared to the state average of 15.3 percent. and 19.9 percent for all of rural Missouri.

However it is not necessarily the no-brainer that some commentators have termed it, especially given the state of Missouri’s budget. While the land is free, there are costs to develop it for use a regular state park as well carrying a potential for liability for the state.

The state is currently estimating a development cost of $65 million to $85 million. The wide range in potential cost is due to the possibility for all contract construction or a hybrid in-house/contract construction. 

While the state could see returns to its coffers from the project through increased sales tax revenues, that money would not filter into the system until later and could not fulfill the upfront costs of development.

Basic costs that people might not think about in the development and maintenance of a trail like this include graveling the 144 miles of pathway, safety at crossings and bridges, crime and vegetation management, according to Sutherland. There’s also the potential need for trail heads with kiosks and benches, restroom facilities, shelters and parking lots.

Farmers have been the biggest opposition to the trail via the Missouri Farm Bureau, according to the MU Extension study, and heard at local public hearings on the issue. Trespassing fears and loss of land use are of concern. The state has sought to mitigate some of those fears, with the legislature last year making law the requirement that the state fund fencing along state parks. 

According to Wood, he still hears concerns, but believes more and more farmers and others in opposition are getting used to the idea and may be amenable to state acceptance of the rail line if development is not funded by the state.

In the Lake of the Ozarks area, the 38-mile stretch between Windsor and Versailles could cost $756,446 per mile to develop and the 28-mile stretch from Versailles to Eugene, $654,480 per mile. 

Down the line there are rail bridges and tunnels that are gone or in need of significant repairs. With the long disuse of the rail line, there are also private encroachments over the line that have occurred, and environmental studies were also needed to ensure the state does not accidentally acquire serious liability concerns. 

After the significant cost of development, the state has also estimated maintenance costs at $6,494 per mile per year with estimates based on its existing cost to maintain the similar Katy Trail State Park.

On the Budget Committee and Chairman of the Missouri House of Representatives Subcommittee on Appropriations for Health, Mental Health and Social Services, Wood understands the administration’s budget concerns. Not only does the state park system already have its own backlog of maintenance projects, according to prior reporting by the Associated Press, Wood sees firsthand the challenges of the overall state budget.

“We can’t spend money on a trail when we can’t fix roads and bridges yet,” Wood commented, but that doesn’t mean he’s not supportive of the project.

If at some point in the future, an administration wanted to, it could recommend an appropriation for the trail, but otherwise, it would be kept separate from the state park system. 

Wood says he and certain other representatives are in agreement that the state should accept the park but not the development costs, instead potentially creating a fund for local organizers to raise money for and allowing individual cities and other entities along the trail to develop their own parts. 

The Versailles Bike and Pedestrian Project, for one, recently received a grant for three pedestrian crossings to help make the city more bike and pedestrian friendly, part of a greater renewal campaign for the Morgan County seat. In addition to recreational use, there is great potential for the trail to serve local populations of Mennonites who often use bicycles as a main form of transportation as well as to boost exercise and healthy living opportunities for all local residents. The City of Eldon is also planning infrastructure around the potential trail.

The proposed trail has the potential to boost business in Versailles as well as Stover and Eldon, but Wood cautioned that the boost may not be the huge boon some people may be anticipating. 

“Some of it depends on whose numbers you believe. Will it drive a lot of business into downtown Versailles, no, but the business it brings in will be more than they have now,” he said.

A small boost in each town could add up though.

Wood sees the greatest potential in the trail as a boost to existing small businesses in downtown areas rather than the creation of many new businesses to serve trail users.

Under this concept, the state would still be responsible for some things like shutting down the park during deer season to protect riders’ safety and funding fencing along the trail per a state statute passed last year to protect farmers’ interests along the trail. 

It is all of these possibilities and pitfalls that the state is exploring, said Sutherland.

“We’re talking about the capacity to take on such a significant project from a resources standpoint, whether we have the money to take it on. We have a big system, but we are exploring other ways, other paths forward, public-private partnerships, public-public partnerships. We’re trying to figure out a way to see if a path forward is possible without a negative impact on the rest of the system. There are a lot of things to consider,” he said. “We don’t want to be rushed. The option for extension for more time allows us to make a thoughtful decision that will be best for the state and the system and not just one project. We’re trying to be very responsible to taxpayers.”