A bill before Gov. Mike Parson would set up a fund to accept donations and grants to develop the 144-mile former Rock Island rail line as a recreational trail.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources would manage the fund, but there will be no state money committed to the project.
Greg Harris, executive director of the Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc. advocacy group, said even without state dollars, the fund is important.
“It sends a message to everyone that this is what the state wants,” Harris said.
Ameren owns the rail line that extends from Windsor, about 90 miles southeast of Kansas City, to Beaufort, 60 miles west of St. Louis. The company is in the process of giving the land to the state. Both sides are working on an agreement they say should be in place by the time the Surface Transportation Board would need to approve the transfer in August.
A big stumbling block to fully converting the rail line to a trail is cost. The path has numerous tunnels and bridges that may need repairs or be replaced.
“The cost of developing the corridor is high,” said Mike Sutherland, deputy director of Missouri State Parks. “We are not going to take away from the rest of the system to develop one project — because we have great state parks throughout the state.”
But Sutherland said the endowment fund will make it possible to raise money.
“We have a place to put funds, and a mandate from the Legislature that this is something they want to see happen,” Sutherland said.
The state estimates converting the rail line to a trail could cost up to $85 million dollars. Plus annual maintenance of $500,000 a year.
But Harris said those numbers are misleading and the trail can be developed in pieces, starting immediately with towns that have been waiting for some commitment from the state before moving forward.
“It goes where people want to go. In many cases, it runs right along the main highway in the town,” Harris said. “That’s true in Eldon, Owensville, other cities.”
“We’ve seen what this trail can do economically, already. We want to get portions of it up and going as soon as possible,” Harris added. “Every day the trail isn’t open, is a day someone can’t stay at Rock Island Trail Bed and Breakfast in Rosebud. Or to go to the Krooked Moon Distillery in Owensville.”
Harris said his group has $600,000 in pledges toward the project, and that money can be put to work to start opening parts of the trail.
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