Cross State Rock Island & Katy Trail System: Where are we? What remains to be done?

With the announcement last week that Governor Nixon and Missouri State Parks intends to complete a long-awaited piece of the Katy Trail-Kansas City connection in 2016, it brings up the question: What will it take to actually complete the potential 217 mile Rock Island Trail across Missouri?

Rock Island Trail Sections
Rock Island Trail Sections - click for full-sized graphic

What are the different sections of the potential trail?  What other existing trails will they connect to? Who owns each section?  What is the status of each section? 

Proceeding from west to east, the brief summary is this:

  • Section 1 (17 miles): Jackson County and a coalition of governments are working on a plan to bring the trail into the center of the Kansas City metro area (Kansas City to Pleasant Hill).
  • Section 2 (47 miles): Governor Nixon recently committed to complete the very important trail section that will connect the Katy Trail to the outskirts of the Kansas City metro area in 2016 (Pleasant Hill to Windsor)
  • Section 3 (144 miles): Missouri State Parks is working with Ameren to complete the railbanking of the final, longest section of the Rock Island Trail (Windsor to Washington).Then trail construction can begin.

Potential statewide Rock Island Trail--The details about each section

Each of the three major sections of the Rock Island Trail has had its own history, challenges to overcome, and opportunities.  Here are all the details about each of the three sections:

  • SECTION 1: Kansas City to Pleasant Hill, 24.8 miles.

    Owner: Union Pacific. 

    Potential Owner: Coalition of local governments

    Significance: When this section is complete, it will connect the Katy Trail system directly to the heart of the Kansas City metro area.  It will also allow the trail system to connect to a growing network of rail-trails in Kansas, and north of St Joseph, Nebraska, and Iowa.

    In many ways, this 25-mile section is the keystone of the Quad-States Trail system.  Without this section, the Katy Trail will come to the edge of the KC metro area, but will never make the connections to Kansas, northern Missouri, and beyond.

    Status: A coalition of local governments, led by Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, has an option to purchase this section of the Rock Island corridor. and more recently announced that work is progressing to finalize the deal.  

    The coalition needs an estimated $60 million to purchase the corridor and build the trail; it has $10-$15 of that in hand.

    Time frame: The current option to purchase the corridor gives the local coalition a window of a year or two to finalize that deal.  If the purchase goes through, trail construction for much of the corridor could potentially happen quite quickly, within 1-3 years. A few difficult areas may take 5-10 years to complete.  If the purchase isn't finalized soon, it is quite possible that the opportunity to purchase the corridor will be lost, and we will lose this portion of the trail forever.

  • SECTION 2: Pleasant Hill to Windsor, 47.6 miles.

    Owner: Missouri State Parks 

    Former owner: Ameren

    Significance: This section connects the Katy Trail at Windsor to the outskirts of the Kansas City metro area in Pleasant Hill.  Since the Katy Trail was first envisioned in the 1980s, local and statewide leaders started looking for ways to connect it to the nearby Kansas City metro area.  After extensive study, this connection along the Rock Island corridor emerged as the best way--and perhaps the only possible way--to make that connection.

    History: Ameren agreed to allow trail use of this section as part of the Taum Sauk Disaster agreement in 2007. However, at that time the vision was for a "rails with trails" arrangement, with the trail to the side of the railbed.

    Since 2007, the Governor's office and Missouri State Parks have undertaken lengthy negotiations with Ameren, finally resulting in Ameren agreeing to give up its railroad rights and allow the trail to be built on the existing railbed. Ameren completed railbanking of this section, and transfer to Missouri State Parks, in 2014.

    Status: Rail salvage work on this corridor is underway now. Portions of the trail are complete and partially complete.  One rail salvage work is complete, trail construction will move forward.

    Time frame: Governor Nixon recently committed to completing and opening this section of trail by the end of 2016.
  • SECTION 3: Windsor to Beaufort (near Washington), 143.7 miles

    Owner: Ameren 

    Representatives of MoBikeFed and MoRIT meet with Ameren to deliver petition
    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.

    Potential owner: Missouri State Parks

    History: After Missouri State Parks and Ameren concluded the negotiations to railbank the Windsor-Pleasant Hill segment, Ameren approached the state about the possibility of railbanking the next 143.7 miles going east from Windsor. Local advocates along the Rock Island Trail had been building community support for this idea for years. That and other factors made the time seem right.  

    After an exciting summer of negotiation and bids on various parts of the line in 2014, in fall 2014 Ameren officially announced that it would railbank this portion of the line and transfer ownership to Missouri State Parks.

    Significance: Added to the two other segments of the Rock Island, this 143.7-mile segment will create a continuous 216.7-mile Rock Island Trail corridor leading from the heart of Kansas City to Washington, Missouri.  This alone will make the Rock Island Trail one of the longest rail-trails in America and the world.

    But, in addition, this segment of the Rock Island Trail will connect to the existing Katy Trail at both ends--in Windsor and in Washington. That means that the Katy-Rock Island trail system will be a tremendous cross-state trail loop, stretching from state line to state line, and encompassing more than 450 miles of connected trail.  It will be one of the major trail systems of the midwest, the United States, and the world.

    It will connect dozens of Missouri communities, large and small, urban and rural, and (along with planned and existing trail systems that connect to the Katy and Rock Island) will mean that over three million Missourians will live within a few miles of this massive statewide trail network.

    Time frame: Ameren and Missouri State Parks project that the railbanking work on this section will be completed in early 2016. Salvage work on the rail line will then take 1-3 years or more.  Then trail construction can begin.  We will likely see some segments of this trail open soon thereafter--but (as was the case with the Katy) trail construction will likely continue over a period of decades.

    Easier sections are likely to be completed soonest.  More difficult and expensive sections may take longer, as local and state governments work to raise funds to complete the trail.

Rock Island Trail - Katy Trail facts

More details - and more trail connections

Each of the three segments has further details, further challenges, and further potential trail connections--connections that are vital to creating a truly seamless statewide trail system.

Many such connections will be pursued by local government officials, agencies, and advocates.  Here is a sampling:

  • On the eastern end, the Katy and Rock Island trails will connect with a growing regional trails system, the "River Ring" of trails that is gradually growing to reach every part of the St. Louis metro area. Great Rivers Greenway District is overseeing and providing the funding for that regional trails system, with 110 miles of existing greenway and more added every year.
  • On the western end, the Rock Island Trail will someday be the centerpiece of the Kansas City region's Metrogreen Trails system. It, too, is planned to eventually connect every part of the metro area to the statewide trail system. Unlike the St. Louis region, the Kansas City region does not yet have a regional trails and greenways funding source.  So it is left to individual cities, counties, and other agencies ot move the regional trail vision forward.
  • Between Section 1 and Section 2, a gap of a few miles just northwest of Pleasant Hill exists, where it is not possible to use the Rock Island corridor for a few miles. Local communities are working to fill that trail gap.  The City of Pleasant Hill has already filled a portion, with the MoPAC Trail, which has been open for several years.
  • Near Washington, Missouri, several trail gaps will need to be filled. The Rock Island corridor currently being railbanked ends at Beaufort, several miles from Washington. And Washington itself is several miles from the Katy Trail--and across the Missouri River with an old band very bike/ped unfriendly bridge providing the only river crossing for miles.  State and local officials are very aware of these gaps and working to fill them:
    • Washington and MoDOT have been working for years to replace the Washington Bridge.  The new bridge will include a dedicated bike/ped path--similar to the recently completed Hermann Bridge.
    • MoDOT and local officials have been working hard to ensure that the Katy Trail is well connected to this planned Washington-Missouri River Bridge.  The Katy Trail is a few miles from the bridge; plans to make a good trail connection are underway.
    • Missouri State Parks and Ameren officials are working hard to ensure that a good trail connection between Beaufort and Washington will be created.  They have not revealed the details, but officials on both sides of the negotiation have assured us repeatedly that this final piece of the trail connection is a priority and that discussions are going well.


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.