Major milestone for statewide Rock Island Trail: Feds approve trail conversion

Yesterday the statewide Rock Island Trail took a major step forward--perhaps the biggest and most important step in this lengthy, complex process.  The Surface Transportation Board approved the proposal by Ameren to end railroad use of the line and work out an agreement to transfer the line to Missouri State Parks so that it can become a trail.

This is a major milestone in the decades-long work to convert the long-disused, 217 mile long rail corridor into a statewide trail that will benefit all communities along the route.

The Rock Island combined with the Katy Trail will make a 457-mile cross-state tr
The Rock Island combined with the Katy Trail will make a 457-mile cross-state trail loop

The STB's Thursday decision is to allow 145 miles of the line--from Windsor to Beaufort--to be removed from rail use, "railbanked", and transferred to Missouri State Parks for use as the Rock Island Trail. State Parks and Ameren now have 180 days to complete a trail use agreement and forward it to the STB for approval.

In addition, a small segment of the Rock Island line near Pleasant Hill will be transferred to Missouri State Parks as part of the same agreement.  This small segment will help complete the 48-mile Rock Island Trail section from Pleasant Hill to Windsor, where the Rock Island Trail will connect to the Katy Trail.

Warren Wood, Ameren's Vice President for External Affairs and Communications, said:

We see a tremendous opportunity for tourism, outdoor entertainment and economic development for the people and communities along this rail line. If converted to a trail, this would be one of the longest bike trails in the country, and if connected with the Katy Trail would be one of the longest bike trails in the world. We have received thousands of support letters from people living along the line, people in other states and even from other countries. We look forward to working with stakeholders to maximize the benefits of this trail to the nearby communities while working to address the concerns some stakeholders have expressed.

This is a major step forward for the statewide Rock Island Trail. Our congratulations to Ameren, to Missouri State Parks, to the Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc (MoRIT), and to the communities along the trail. 

Representatives of MoBikeFed and MoRIT meet with Ameren to deliver petition signatures in support of the Rock Island Trail. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy played a key role in promoting the trail, helping build nationwide support, and in submitting a competitive bid to purchase the corridor.
Representatives of MoBikeFed and MoRIT meet with Ameren to deliver petition signatures in support of the Rock Island Trail. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy played a key role in promoting the trail, helping build nationwide support, and in submitting a competitive bid to purchase the corridor.

A Statewide Rock Island Trail?

With the previously railbanked 48-mile section (Pleasant Hill-Windsor) this puts the Rock Island Trail at 193 miles. 

The most problematic remaining section of the potential 217-mile trail is the 25-mile section from Pleasant Hill to Kansas City.  This section is owned by Union Pacific; a coalition of communities has an option to purchase this corridor and has a portion of the funds raised for the purchase.  We urge those communities to work together to finalize the purchase and complete the statwide trail network!

Read on for details about the trail and timeline . . .

What does the future Rock Island Trail network look like?

When the new Rock Island Trail segments are complete, that will rocket Missouri to the forefront of states with long, interconnected trail systems.  With the addition of major planned trail systems in the St Louis, Kansas City, Columbia, Springfield, and other areas of the state, the state's trail system starts to look formidable indeed.

What happened?

In Summer 2014, Ameren unexpectedly announced that it was taking bids to sell this portion of the Rock Island line. MoRIT, the coalition of citizens in the Rock Island corridor communities, quickly mobilized to contact Ameren to ask for an opportunity to bid on the line.  MoBikeFed and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy worked with trail supporters across Missouri and across the U.S. to mobilize support for the trail option and for the opportunity to bid.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy then worked hard to submit a viable bid to purchase the line in time for Ameren's deadline in late July.  We were very concerned that if Ameren were to sell the line to a salvage railroad, the opportunity to railbank the corridor could be lost forever--or at best, delayed by decades.  The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's bid gave Ameren the opportunity to sell the corridor, if that was the business direction they wished to take, while still guaranteeing that the trail conversion would occur at the end of the process.

At the end of that process, Ameren has elected to retain the key portion of the line, from Windsor to Beaufort and to railbank it directly--rather than selling to a third party.  Ameren and Missouri State Parks then entered negotiations to railbank the line and submit that proposal to the Surface Transportation Board for approval.

The proposal was submitted to the STB in December. The STB solicited public comments, receiving a detailed comment in opposition to the railbanking proposal from the Missouri Farm Bureau, and detailed comment in support of the trail proposal from the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation and the Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc.

The proposal to railbank the line and convert it to a trail was approved yesterday. The STB then granted Ameren and Missouri State Parks 90 days to finalized the interim trail use agreement and submit it to the STB for approval.  At that point, the railbanking process will be complete.

Ameren and Missouri State Parks play key roles

We applaud Ameren for moving forward with a plan for the Rock Island RR corridor that will best benefit Ameren stockholders and customers, as well as the citizens of Missouri, in retaining this portion of the corridor to railbank it and transfer the corridor to Missouri State Parks to become part of the new Rock Island Trail State Park.

Missouri State Parks, with the strong support of Governor Nixon, has also played a vitally important role in bringing the Rock Island Trail to this point. Because Missouri State Parks built a strong, ongoing relationship with Ameren as they negotiated to railbank the 48 miles of Rock Island corridor between Pleasant Hill and Windsor, Ameren now feels comfortable in moving forward on a similar basis to railbank the next 145 miles--creating a second cross-state trail in Missouri.

In addition, and very important: Missouri State Parks is willing to take on the large and amazing new trail as a new state park.  It is not often a state is presented with an opportunity like this, and we must applaud Missouri State Parks, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Governor Nixon, and other local, state, and national politicians and decision-makers involved for having the vision to support this major new trail in Missouri.

How long will it take before we see a trail on the Rock Island line?

First off, the letter Ameren issued today is simply the first step in its work to railbank the line.  There are many more steps and hurdles, many of them complex and with the potential to throw the project off course.

Before the Rock Island corridor can become a trail, three things must happen:

STEP #1: Railbanking. We are now partway through this complex legal process--and over the major and most important hurdle. The major hurdle remaining is finalizing and receiving approval for the interim trail use agreement. We will need to be vigilant to ensure that the railbanking effort, which is likely to take 1-2 years, stays on track.

STEP #2: Salvage. The rails and equipment will need to be salvaged.  This is the step much of the 48-mile Rock Island segment from Pleasant Hill to Windsor (the Katy Trail Connector) is currently on.  Experience says salvage work will take 12-18 months, minimum--and perhaps more if difficulties are encountered.

We understand that Ameren has agreed to remove all of the rails (which are valuable) and also has generously agreed to remove the ties (which are not), as part of the salvage process.  That should leave a majority of the line cleaned up and ready to be rather easily converted to trail use. 

STEP #3: Trail building. Finally, there is the trail construction itself. Keep in mind that it took a decade before the majority of the Katy Trail was usable, and Missouri State Parks continues to add sections after more than two decades of use.

We should see selected sections of the trail come online soon after salvage work is complete--optimisticaly, within 1-3 years.  It may be a decade or more before we see a complete trail running from Windsor to Beaufort--and then linking up with the Katy Trail near Washington.

The Rock Island Corridor has some potentially difficult spots--a couple of major river bridges, including a very long bridge over the Gasconade River, and a couple of tunnels.  These will be major scenic attractions of the trail when complete--but may require time and significant funding to fully integrate into the trail.

What we are likely to see first is small sections of the trail near populated areas completed, then gradually connected across the state--much as we saw with the development of the Katy Trail.

We may see long sections of connected trail develop, then just a couple of trouble spots holding the trail from completion, and finally--perhaps after decades--a final connection all along the line and through to the Katy Trail near Washington.

In addition, a few troublesome connections must be worked out--for instance, the last few miles linking the trail from Beaufort to Washington.  We encourage all parties involved to work together to find the best possible solution for these difficult spots.

What is happening now?

Good news is that work in the 48 mile section from Pleasant Hill to Windsor (where the Rock Island makes a connection with the Katy Trail) is already underway.  Legal work there is complete and the line is railbanked, as of early 2014.

Some salvage work on this section is complete, and even some trail and trailhead construction is complete.

We could see portions of the 48-mile segment open soon, and work completed on the 48-mile Katy Trail connection segment finished within a few years.  

By the time the 48-mile Katy Trail Connection segment is open for use, we may see portions of the 145-mile Windsor-Beaufort starting to come online.

Altogether, a truly exciting time for Missouri trails, as we see the beginnings of another cross-state trail of the magnitude of the Katy Trail come together.

                

Rock Island Corridor - Ameren is now proposing to railbank sections

Rock Island Corridor - Ameren has just received STB approval to railbank the sections 71.6-215.325 and 262.906-263.5. Section 215.325-262.906 (Windsor-Pleasant Hill) is already railbanked and under construction as a trail connecting the Katy Trail to Pleasant Hill. Click the image to view the full-sized version.

 

 

One of the top goals of MoBikeFed's Vision for Bicycling and Walking in Missouri is building a world-class bicycle and pedestrian transportation system in Missouri.  The addition of the Rock Island Trail to Missouri's statewide trail system is the biggest single advance we have seen in Missouri in over 20 years.

Your membership and generous financial contributions help turn our Vision into reality--building the statewide public support for bicycling, walking, and trails that make major advances like the Rock Island Trail possible.

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