The deadline for Missouri State Parks (MSP) and Missouri Central Railroad (a subsidiary of Ameren) to finalize the transfer of the 144 mile former Rock Island Railroad corridor is December 31, 2021. Ameren’s gift of the https://mostateparks.com/rockislandlinecorridor provides the historic opportunity to provide an economic boost to 20 rural communities and enhance their quality of life. It will extend the 47 mile segment that opened December 2016 near Kansas City across the state another 144 miles to greater St. Louis. Further, Ameren’s gift agreement allows a trail alongside the rails an additional 13 miles to Union. Together, the 204 mile Rock Island Trail will be the 4th longest in the nation and form a loop with the nation’s longest, the 240 mile Katy Trail.
On July 10, 2021, Kansas City’s Jackson County Parks Plus Rec opened a 14 mile segment of Rock Island Trail from Lee’s Summit to I-70 https://www.jacksongov.org/776/Rock-Island-Rail-Corridor-Authority. Closer to St. Louis, the world-class loop of the 240 mile Katy and 204 mile Rock Island trails will have only a 6 mile gap between Union and Washington, where the new bridge over the Missouri River is bike-friendly.
Ameren’s $5.9 million corridor donation is only part of their investment. At the request of MSP, Ameren paid to remove the ties instead of moving them to the side as was done on the first 47 mile segment. Ameren paid for the survey before the rails were removed to clearly establish the boundaries of the future park. Ameren has placed concrete barriers in front of the three tunnels and every major bridge, plus barbwire fencing and No Trespassing signs at every major road crossing. At the request of MSP, Ameren commissioned a Phase 2 environmental study. The two-year salvage of the 144 mile corridor was completed in summer 2018.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce notes significant economic growth in communities along the first 47 miles https://mobizmagazine.com/2017/08/17/plans-for-rock-island-bike-path-prompt-small-town-entrepreneurship/. New trail-related businesses have already sprung up along the next 157 miles. Towns every few miles already have restaurants, convenience stores, lodging, grocery stores, ice cream and frozen custard shops, wineries, bars/grills, parks, camping, a craft brewery and a distillery. There is a Walmart within a half mile of the corridor at Versailles, Eldon and Owensville. The trail will connect KC to Missouri’s largest state park at Lake of the Ozarks, and fill a long gap between state parks https://mostateparks.com/page/57778/locator-map.
The next 157 miles of Rock Island Trail are expected to produce a 20:1 direct return on investment. Economists often estimate an additional 3:1 in indirect multipliers. Missouri State Parks budget is limited to a 1/20 of 1% sales tax and whatever they can generate https://mostateparks.com/page55069//parks-soils-and-water-sales-tax. MSP budgets less than $700,000 per year to operate the 286 miles of Katy/Rock Island trails ($2,448/mile) https://mostateparks.com/sites/mostateparks/files/Datasheets_Katy.pdf.
In most trail towns the Rock Island will be the non-motorized alternative to the main highway. The new infrastructure will encourage users to walk or bicycle to work, school, restaurants and stores. An improved quality of life will make trail communities more desirable to new residents and industry. Property values will increase, with the highest impact being nearest the trail https://cafnr.missouri.edu/2013/04/happy-trails/.
Tourists will be thrilled http://www.railstotrails.org/trailblog/2016/december/05/missouris-rock-island-trail-state-park/. Spectacular bridges span the Gasconade, Osage and Maries Rivers as seen in short videos at https://vimeo.com/203368673 and https://vimeo.com/238664842. Its 3 tunnels are 2-5 football fields long, with the longest being at Eugene. The Katy/Rock loop is easily accessed from international airports in St. Louis and Kansas City, numerous national airports, multiple Amtrak stations, and Interstate 70.
In 2012, Katy Trail State Park was found to have a direct economic impact of more than $18.5 million per year https://mostateparks.com/sites/mostateparks/files/Katy_Trail_Economic_Impact_Report_Final.pdf. The Rock Island is expected to have even more usage and economic impact per mile because it runs through the middle of towns every 2-10 miles, and along their major highway. More than 10% of the corridor is in the city limits of towns. A full 41% of Missourians live within 50 miles of the corridor https://rockislandtrail.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Rock-Island-Trail-Opportunity-Report-MU-Extension-2018-Final7.pdf. Dormant properties are primed to become trail-related businesses http://www.joplinglobe.com/news/lifestyles/andy-ostmeyer-rock-island-rocks-windsor/article_3fc6d78b-45f7-514d-9bb6-fd7cece53a1a.html.
Long distance trails are a priority (https://mostateparks.com/sites/mostateparks/files/ExpansionPlan1992.pdf pages 18-19). Governor Parson introduces the recently completed Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP): “The purpose of the report is to identify outdoor recreation issues of statewide significance and evaluate the supply and demand of outdoor recreation resources in the State.” The second of seven broad goals is “Expand Missouri’s statewide trail system and promote trails as a critical component to engaging in an active and healthy lifestyle.” https://mostateparks.com/sites/mostateparks/files/2018-2022%20Show%20Me%20the%20Great%20Outdoors_SCORP_Final.pdf. The Rock Island Trail State Park Endowment was created in 2019 to hold monies from any source for the new state park (page 3 of https://www.senate.mo.gov/19info/pdf-bill/tat/SB196.pdf).
MSP notes its utility even before any improvement: “The corridor is being used by locals for both transportation and recreation.” https://mostateparks.com/sites/mostateparks/files/RILC_EngineerReport_Summer2018.pdf. Towns are interested in partnering to maintain, develop and operate their segments. City parks in Versailles, Eldon, Belle, and Owensville could serve as trailheads by sharing their existing parking, water and toilets. Freeze-resistant fountains could be sponsored to offer water to locals and visitors year-round.
The trail will open significant new agri-tourism opportunities according to https://www.naturallymeramec.org/ and https://www.newgrowthmo.org. Naturally Meramec, an effort led by the Meramec Regional Planning Commission, is promoting the Rock Island Trail Motor Trail https://www.naturallymeramec.org/trails/page/2/.
Demand for active outdoor recreation skyrocketed during the pandemic. That translates to increased local and regional interest in providing financial support for trail construction. A wide variety of grant funding is also available. MSP itself manages roughly $4 million per year in grants for trail and parks. They award up to $250,000 per project in RTP and LWCF grants. The 56 mile segment from Union to the Gasconade River would be the simplest to develop, is near St. Louis and the Katy, and would benefit 9 towns. Engineers estimate a cost of $750,000-$990,000 to repurpose its two bridges for trail use. The key to success will be creative public/private partnerships with communities, individuals and philanthropists. Given the high and increasing costs of further delay, MoRIT is committed to finalizing management of the Rock Island Trail by the end of 2021.