The Rails to Trails Conservancy has placed a bid on the Rock Island Corridor, currently owned by Ameren, on behalf of local and state organizations with plans for a large scale rail to trail project.
The Rock Island Corridor is a 145 mile segment of inactive rail corridor stretching from Windsor to Baufort. The railroad hasn’t been in regular service since the early 1980s. The reason why so many are interested in the corridor is because of its connection points with the Katy Trail in the state’s major metropolitan areas of Kansas City and St. Louis.
Brent Hugh, the Executive Director of Missouri Bike and Pedestrian Federation, said he has been looking at the Rock Island Corridor as a possible rails-to-trails project for nearly 30 years.
“If this is complete, it'll be a 450 mile trail loop," Hugh said. "You could fly into St. Louis; go across the Katy Trail and come back (to St. Louis) on the Rock Island. You could ride hundreds of miles without repeating.”
The Rails to Trails Conservancy came up with the rails-to-trails concept in the mid-1980s. The purpose of the rails-to-trails movement is to take an old, unused railroad corridor, and to convert it into a trail that can be used for biking and hiking. The Rails to Trails Conservancy spokesperson Jake Lynch said keeping the railroad intact for possible use in the future is a hugely important part of the process.
“The goal is to preserve the integrity of the corridor,” Lynch said. "That's step one. That's what we're trying to accomplish with this bid. And then it will be up to the Missouri State Parks and the people of Missouri to turn it into a rail-trail."
Lynch said Missouri is a great candidate for a project of this magnitude based on the success of the Katy Trail.
Chrysa Niewald is the president of the Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc. She says Katy Trail brings in an average of $18.5 million in revenue for the state each year. She said while the revenue a Rock Island Corridor trail would bring in is currently unknown, but she believes the yearly revenue would mirror that of the Katy Trail.
The corridor is currently in a state of flux, according to Hugh. After not being in regular use for 30 years, there is much that needs to be done for the trail to be ready. If Ameren chooses to accept the Rails to Trails Conservancy bid, the first step in converting the Rock Island Corridor into a rail-trail is a process of railbanking.
According to the Rails to Trails website, the railbanking process makes it possible for the railroad structure to stay in-tact after removing equipment such as ties and tracks.
"We will preserve the corridor in one connected segment," Lynch said. "It makes it available for public use. That's not just for the rail-trail, but it's also for possible future reactivation of rail service. Railbanking is at the very heart of the rail-trail movement."
Lynch said once the railbanking has been completed, the Rails to Trails Conservancy will donate the Rock Island Corridor to the Missouri State Parks. Lynch said representatives from the Missouri State Parks have already informed his organization they will accept the corridor if and when the time comes. This donation would connect with current Missouri State Park rail-trails, stretching the Rock Island Corridor from St. Louis to Kansas City.
The Rock Island Corridor would then be prepared for construction of the new trail on the corridor. There is no estimate for when the corridor trail would be completely finished, or how much it would cost to do so. Niewald said there are many variables that could play into how long the trail would take to complete.
"It's going to take some time to complete the trail," Niewald said. "We feel like some of the less challenging sections could be open pretty quickly. But the whole trail? The joke around here is, 'I would like to ride the whole thing with my bicycle before I have to be in a wheelchair to ride it.'"
Lynch agreed the Rock Island Corridor is unlikely to be ready for biking or hiking anytime soon.
"The rail-trail world is kind of like dog years," Lynch said. "If we had to estimate, I think seven to ten years would sound about right. And that's assuming that things run smoothly… It's not uncommon for trails to take 15 to 25 years from conception to realization."
Lynch says the two biggest hurdles to getting projects like this going are typically building local community support along the trail and a lack of education about the benefits of rail-trails.
But Lynch noted that the Katy Trail's success is a positive influence for the potential development of the Rock Island Corridor. He said the Katy Trail's success has shown people of Missouri some of the benefits a rail-trail can bring to the state. He also said the Rails to Trails Conservancy has already heard from many people in communities along the trail saying that they would be on board with developing the trail, which would further help to expedite the development of the Rock Island Corridor.
"I think there are amazing possibilities with the corridor," Hugh said. "Right now, it's basically an overgrown garbage dump that stretches across the state. But it could be turned from that 200-mile garbage dump into a beautiful amenity for the community that it runs through."
"This would bring people from around the world," Lynch said.
Lynch compared the potential loop of the Katy Trail and Rock Island Corridor to a Pennsylvania trail known as the Great Allegheny Passage. The Great Allegheny Passage is a 400-mile rail-trail stretching from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. Lynch said data for that trail shows visitors from all 50 states, but also from all over the world. He believes the trail in Missouri would attract a similar number of visitors.
Even though Hugh may not see the finished product for another decade, he said he couldn't pass up the opportunity to be involved a project like this.
"When I heard that this 145-mile section might become available this summer, my heart jumped out of my chest," Hugh said. "I just thought to myself, 'this is an opportunity we can't let out of our grasp. We have to make it turn into reality this time.'"
Officials at Ameren are expected to make their decision on the winning bid in the coming weeks.