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Missouri takes over old rail path to build Rock Island Trail

by David A Lieb, The Associated Press Dec 20, 2021 Updated Jan 22, 2022

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A new cross-state recreational trail is an important step closer to completion after Missouri announced last week that it was accepting ownership of an old railroad corridor that can be converted into a park.

The Department of Natural Resources plans to develop a public trail along the 144 miles of the former Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad corridor, which stretches eastward from Windsor to Beaufort. The property was donated to the state by the Missouri Central Railroad Co., a subsidiary of the utility Ameren Missouri. The state already owns and operates a 47-mile trail on the Rock Island Spur, which runs eastward from Pleasant Hill to Windsor, where it connects with the Katy Trail. The state will operate both trails under a federal law that allows out-of-service rail corridors to be used as public trails — though they would have to be reconverted to rail lines if ever needed again for that purpose.

“Much like the Katy Trail, we expect the Rock Island Trail to help grow local economies and small businesses, create jobs, and provide Missouri with another great outdoor recreational resource,” Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said in a statement. The Rock Island Trail has been in the works for years and will cost an estimated $86 million to $116 million to fully develop, said DNR Director Dru Buntin. That cost is driven partly by the need to refurbish several tunnels and bridges, particularly the bridges over the Gasconade and Osage rivers, he said.

The state doesn't have the full funding lined up. But Buntin said the department felt comfortable accepting the property because of the initial funding, which includes $2.7 million in federal funds, about $1 million from a parks foundation and commitments for additional money from private donors.

The project also could get funding through the American Rescue Plan pandemic relief act or the federal infrastructure bill recently signed by President Joe Biden. Converting the rail corridor into a park could take five to 10 years, though it's too early to set a particular target for completion, Buntin said.

The national nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy said it has been advocating for several decades to preserve the Rock Island corridor in Missouri and would try to help channel federal funding toward the project.

“Corridors of this length are few and far between,” said Eric Oberg, the conservancy’s Midwest director. “For decades, we’ve heard from so many people — from Missouri, across the country and around the world — who are looking forward to the day they can experience the Rock Island Trail.”

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