Rock Island Trail update: Jackson County Rock Island hits a small bump in the road, but quickly back on track

The 17-mile Jackson County portion of the statewide Rock Island Trail seemed to hit a major roadblock early this month, as a federal agency revoked the county's railroad status and all work on the Rock Island Trail project stopped.  KCUR reported:

A major Rails-To-Trails cycling project in eastern Jackson County, Missouri, that’s been years in the making is suddenly in limbo following a decision this week by the federal government.

On Wednesday, Jackson County stopped construction of the Rock Island bike trail after the federal Surface Transportation Board revoked the county’s authority to operate the one-time railroad corridor.

Jackson County Rock Island's apparent derailment wasn't even a minor speed bump

However, just a few day's later, news reports like this from Fox4KC appeared:

Jackson County has announced that construction has resumed at the Rock Island Trail after a battle with the federal government halted construction last week.

Last Wednesday, construction stopped after the Surface Transportation Board decided to revoke the county’s ownership of the rail line that it purchased in 2016 for $52 million.

The county said that after speaking with legal experts and their own counsel, contractors resumed work Monday. They announced that they would not remove any pieces of rail, ties or other pieces of the rail bed.

The northern section of the trail that is under construction will connect Brickyard Road in Kansas City to the Truman Sports Complex.

What's going on and what are the issues?  Who owns the corridor and does Jackson County need to be a railroad?

In short, the county and the Surface Transportation Board are having a technical discussion about whether or not the continue will be able to continue operating as a railroad.  This is an interesting discussion but has no real relevance to whether or not the county owns the underlying land.

The Jackson County portion of the railroad land was purchased outright from property owners back in the early 1900s when the rail line was built.  In fact, our understanding is that most, if not all, of the Rock Island corridor land across Missouri was purchased in this same way. 

But definitely the portions purchased by Jackson County in 2016 from Union Pacific had just simply been owned by Union Pacific or its predecessors since about 1902, and were sold outright to Jackson County and the KCATA in 2016. You can find those property records online in Jackson County's records system.

Outright ownership of a railroad corridor vs railroad easement

This is quite different from many railroad  rights-of-way across the U.S., where the adjoining landowner still owns the underlying property and the railroad simply has an easement to run a railroad across a portion of that property.

In the case of the Jackson County Rock Island corridor, no living person has ever owned any of the land underlying the corridor, except for Union Pacific (and it's corporate predecessors) and now Jackson County.

Rock Island RR corridor map - state line to state line
Rock Island RR corridor map - state line to state line

So if the railroad is completely dissolved, the land involved will go back to its underlying owner--which in this case is Jackson County.

That is a long and somewhat complex explanation, but please read news reports about the Jackson County Rock Island Trail with these basic facts in mind.

The reason these issues keep resurfacing is that a very small group of adjoining landowners in the Jackson County area are trying to receive compensation for the trail use of the corridor.

This is common is situations where landowners still own the underlying property and the easement is changed from railroad use to trail use. 

But in this case, Jackson County simply owns the property and adjoining property owners do not.


Building a world-class bicycle and pedestrian network across Missouri is one of the four primary goals of MoBikeFed's Vision for Bicycling and Walking in Missouri. Helping support major statewide trails and routes, like the Rock Island Trail, mapping hundreds of miles of bicycle routes connecting various parts of the state to the Katy/Rock Island system, and the recently announced 250-mile Butterfield Stage Experience, are one way we help accomplish that goal.

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