SB 196 opens doors to potential state, local trail partnerships

By: 
Roxie Murphy
Staff Writer

When both the Missouri House of Representatives and Senate approved Senate Bill (SB) 196 on May 9, trail supports everywhere celebrated. 

Greg Harris, Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc., (MoRIT) executive director explained why passing the bill that would allow “The Rock Island Trail State Park Endowment Fund to only be used for the purpose of operating, maintaining, developing, and securing any portion of the former Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Corridor east of the aforementioned mile marker” is a cause for celebration.

“The change here is that in the past, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Missouri State Parks (MSP) couldn’t accept non-state funds for projects,” Harris explained. “This (bill has) an amendment that allows the DNR director to enter into agreements with donors to provide funds for projects.”

Donations from donors may come in various forms, such as standard monetary donations or in-kind matches.

“But I am reading this to believe this opens the door for communities to agree with the director that they will partner on any aspects or agreements within the city limits of their own towns, counties or any other group,” Harris said. 

Harris added that the next big change is the third line of the new bill related to contracts that adds, “the director shall give preference to all firms, corporations, or individuals doing business as Missouri firms, corporations, or individuals, whenever competing bids, in their entirety, are comparable.”

“The amendment related to contracts could be a positive for us because it allows the director to enter into more creative concession contracts,” Harris said.

Creative contracts would also be a huge boon to both the state and groups interested in maintaining or building their own sections of the railroad-turned-trail, but Harris said it is line item 8 in the amendment that brings out the most important tools for such a contract.

“In item 8, the director may authorize a private person to provide private services, not to exceed two years without doing competitive bids,” Harris said. “The potential of all those things helps to make State Parks be more entrepreneurial or give them tools to do so and enter into partnerships.”

Harris said the endowment fund is also a key in itself.

“As far as I am concerned — if it gives State Parks the understanding that legislators are expecting them to accept Ameren’s gift — then hopefully they do,” he said. “And once the state is in control of the trail, groups may start applying for grants.”

Right now, grants such as the Recreational Trails Program that awarded $73,000 to the city of Belle to build 1.1 miles of trail on the railbed through the city limits, have said they will not entertain allocating funds to the former Rock Island line until it has been accepted by a state entity. 

“When we went a year-and-a-half ago to see if we could get more grants like Belle had, we were told no grant proposals would be considered on 144-miles until a decision was made,” Harris said.

Since the city of Belle had already received funds for their trail project, MSP asked Belle aldermen to put their project on hold in June 2017 with promises that they could extend their grant deadline as needed. 

Then in June 2018, MSP administrators had changed, and city officials received a letter saying their funds had been withdrawn. They were asked in writing to formally return the funds to avoid being penalized in future grant applications for not completing their project.

MSP Deputy Director Mike Sutherland acknowledged during a meeting with Belle aldermen in December 2018 that it was a departmental mistake. He told Barb Schaller, writer of the previous grant, that she could simply re-apply, but left out that the program would not be available until MSP made a decision on whether or not they would accept the trail.

“This fund makes it more clear that State Parks should accept the corridor, and then communities may apply for grants,” Harris said. “State Parks administers grants for the trail and would probably want to put funds into this account.”

However, MoRIT grants could be placed in a different account while negotiating their use with MSP.

Harris said trail supporters think the endowment fund bill is a clear message to MSP that the trail should be accepted. The nearly unanimous passing of the bill in the Senate and House of Representatives is as bipartisan as many have ever seen it, with 32 yes and zero no votes in the Senate and 134 yes and only six voting no in the House. 

Those who voted against the bill included Rep. Tom Hurst (R) of District 62; Rep. Andrew McDaniel (R) of District 150; Rep. Mike Moon (R) of District 157; Rep. Jeff Pogue (R) of District 143; Rep. Shane Roden (R) of District 111; and Rep. Robert Ross (R) of District 142.

But Harris said the bill is not the only means to the end.

“We want to make clear that the Rock Island State Park Endowment Fund is one tool, an important tool, but not the only tool,” Harris said. “There are people and organizations out there who would prefer to give money for roads, bridges, or trail surface improvements through other routes, such as MoRIT or foundations.”

For those who are motivated to help with the trail, this bill is a step forward.

“This bill allows MSP to be more entrepreneurial and creative and get other organizations that have a lot at stake to participate,” Harris said.