Ameren ready to donate railbed once salvage concludes

By: 
BY ROXIE MURPHY AND MATTHEW HAINES
Republican Staff WRITERs

Deputy Director for State Parks wants plan in place first; asks MORIT board members: ‘how does it fit into our system?’

 

JEFFERSON CITY — Ameren Missouri Vice President Warren Wood told Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc., (MORIT) members attending the third annual director’s meeting March 20 the utility provider will be ready to donate 144 miles of the former Rock Island line in May –– hopefully to Missouri State Parks.

“Communication is key to realizing success of this world-class opportunity,” Wood told MORIT supporters meeting in Jefferson City.

Wood noted the clearing, inspections, and salvage operations of the 144 miles that are left of the Rock Island corridor will be done by May.

MORIT Executive Director Greg Harris said there needs to be a recipient lined up for the impending donation in May. Missouri State Parks has not formally accepted responsibility for the trail.

“I was talking to my boss wondering what to do with the Rock Island corridor, and we had these MORIT people calling us,” said Wood. “We thought there’s an enormous number of us that ride the Katy Trail, including me. We look at the economic development, the tourism, the outdoor recreation opportunity that represents.”

Wood reiterated Ameren wants the corridor used for a trail. 

“It wouldn’t be that hard to make it a loop,” Wood said. “We saw it as a world class destination, potentially. So we asked MORIT, ‘what kind of support do you have?’ And they dropped off five boxes of letters — big boxes, of the type legal briefs are delivered in — from Missouri, neighboring states, and other countries.”

Wood, who has been involved in community meetings across the region over the past three years, explained how Ameren officials came to the conclusion to donate the corridor to help establish a trail.

“That really helped us since Ameren didn’t have to come up with the whole process for supporting this, communicating to the state what an opportunity this is,” he said. “There’s already a ready-set group here.”

For the first time in Gov. Eric Grietens’ administration, a ranking director of Missouri State Parks attended a MORIT meeting. Deputy Director Mike Sutherland stressed nothing would happen with the trail without a plan in place.

“The question is — how does (the Rock Island Trail) fit into our system?” Sutherland asked. “It has to fit within the confines of the funding. What we’re doing now is an evaluation process that hasn’t been done before. No one can deny we have a significant opportunity.”

Sutherland went on to ask if the state had the ability to accept the trail.

“Can we do it to the standard everyone will expect because of the success of the Katy Trail?” Sutherland asked. “We are measuring these capacities.”

Harris said expecting the Rock Island Trail to be exactly like the Katy is a misconception many people and officials have.

“The thing we would like to point out is there is not a specific definition of what they (State Parks) would have to do,” Harris said. “They think it would have to be just like the Katy; it could be just leave it as is. Or end at every bridge.”

To open up 42 miles of trail between Beaufort and the Gascondy Bridge, upgrades to the bridge over old Highway 50 east of Gerald and the trestle bridge over Soap Creek along Highway 28 outside Rosebud, would cost around $700,000, Harris said.

“That’s nothing to open up 42 miles of trail,” Harris said.

State Parks estimates $60 to $80 million would be needed to develop the trail, including buildings, staffing, volunteer services, maintenance, repair, upkeep of trailheads, removing downed trees and repairing washouts.

“We are working on a plan to move forward,” Sutherland said. “We are working with Ameren to obtain right-of-entry.”

Sutherland promised a more refined estimate is forthcoming and cited that development and infrastructure upgrades form a significant portion of the initial cost. 

MORIT has always maintained that if State Parks accepted responsibility of the trail, that did not mean that they had to be completely financially responsible for it.

“Just because you manage it doesn’t mean you have to do everything,” Harris said. “We hope every community will want to partner on patrolling it and maintaining and potentially maybe even improving it.”

Harris said when there is a railway right-of-way already established, what has to be done now is easy in comparison.

“The structures are there and we need to make sure they are safe and structurally sound,” Harris said. “Pedestrians and horses are much lighter than trains.”

Sutherland agreed that many trail projects depend on a strong coalition of private, non-profit, grant and local funding sources to succeed.

“Our task is to partner with communities along the trail,” Harris said. “We don’t expect the state parks to foot the whole bill. We want communities to take on the trail within their communities.”

Examples of what communities would potentially take on includes establishing designated trailheads, shower houses, water and facilities.

“We are also working with the private sector to fill gaps with shops, restaurants, hostels and places to stay,” Harris said. “To stimulate the development of local economies and promote tourism in Missouri.”

Ameren is still pushing to donate the trail to State Parks, despite the set backs. “If it doesn’t occur, we will hustle to make sure there is a trail manager,” Harris said. “We need this to happen.”

Earlier, Ameren’s Wood made that exact point.

“We can see from the Katy Trail effort this is a group that’s engaged in social media and understands how to get the word out,” said Wood. “That’s a key part of making this happen. We see this as a world class opportunity. Thanks to Greg Harris and the MORIT team for making this a real possibility for the state of Missouri. Thank you very much for your passion and support of the project.”

Harris said every day that goes by and the trail isn’t in operation is business lost for places like the Bistro at the Mill in Gerald, Clancy’s Irish Pub in Rosebud, Krooked Moon Distillery in Owensville and every other business along the corridor.

Representatives from towns and places along the corridor attended the meeting, including mayors, city administrators, consumer advocates, business leaders, conservation leaders, and civic and civil groups. 

Many who are along the already open  47 miles from Pleasant Hill to Windsor informed the group about the amount of success they have already obtained since their section of the trail opened last year.

The intent still remains that Ameren will donate the remaining length of the railroad to State Parks.

“Ameren understands Missouri State Parks is looking at the last quarter of the year to make a decision,” Harris said.

A 2017 survey about the proposed Rock Island Trail project conducted at the governor’s request by Missouri State Parks generated 419 pages of comments from 8,685 respondents.