Trail meeting hosted by State Park officials leaves visitors with mixed opinions

By: 
Roxie Murphy
Staff Writer

More than 155 trail supporters attended Missouri State Parks (MSP) Rock Island Trail community meeting at the Owensville Scenic Regional Library Monday night; but many came away disappointed that the information presented by officials was one-sided.

Community members from along the 144.3 miles of the former railroad, including Owensville, Bland, Belle, Vienna, Rolla, Rosebud, Gerald, and as far away as St. Louis filled the library parking lot, both sides of  Madison Avenue and overflowed on the old 3-5 Center bus road. People waited in line to sign-in at the library door, and spoke with Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc. (MoRIT) officials who were handing out pamphlets and free t-shirts. 

 The Oct. 29 meeting is the first of three scheduled along the trail this week. The second was held yesterday (Tuesday) in Versailles, and the third is tomorrow (Thursday) in Meta.

Connie Koepke was waiting for the Owensville High School Cross Country team to arrive.

“The cross country kids all ride bikes and they have to ride through the streets,” Koepke said.

She added that the trail would be a great alternative, and the cross country team wanted it to go through. Team members Treyden Williams, junior, Fredrick Zheng, freshman, and Isabelle Bruckerhoff, sophomore, arrived together. 

“We want somewhere else to run,” Williams said. 

“New scenery, new places,” Zheng added. 

“Not always the same thing over and over,” Bruckerhoff said.

Another teammate added that his home was between Rosebud and Gerald, very close to the trail. 

“I want to ride from my house to the school,” the OHS junior said when asked if he supported the trail.

The team’s coach, Matt Candrl, said the 29 bicycles at the school would be used on the trail, and he himself could ride to school.

“There is no way to walk to school right now,” Candrl said. “I am a PE teacher. Activity increases the mind. With a trail so close and bikes, we can get the kids out in the environment.”

Other Owensville community members waiting in line added that they were definitely in support of trail as well. 

“Just to have a great place to ride,” said Pam Barrick, a Katy trail enthusiast. “Right now we have to take the car to hit a trail anywhere. I think it would be great for families also.”

Tones changed from excitement and support of the trail to disappointment when meeting goers finally had a chance to speak with MSP officials. MSP Deputy Director Mike Sutherland was answering questions in a small group next to a “Potential Management Alternatives” poster. 

Barb Schaller, the Belle city court clerk responsible for writing and winning the Recreational Trails Grant to complete 5,800 feet of the trail through Belle city limits  told Sutherland that her community has been looking forward to the trail for at least five years. The city was asked to de-obligate their trail grant in July and has been sending letters requesting an extension and permission to go ahead with the project since then. However, MSP has been silent to their requests.

“Belle has been working on this grant for five years,” Schaller told Sutherland. “We will be devastated if it doesn’t go through.”

Sutherland explained that there are people in southern Missouri who had never heard of the Rock Island Trail and the state needed to take that into consideration.

MU Extension calculated that 41 percent of Missourians live within 50 miles of the Rock Island corridor.

Sutherland waved his hand at the room full of cost analysis that housed MSP’s preliminary estimate showing the trail could  cost between $65 million and $85 million to fully complete. Once the trail is completed, MSP estimates that it could cost $6,494 per mile in upkeep. 

The estimate does not take into account communities that are fund-raising for trail sections, volunteerism or donations. MSP acknowledges that they have not yet identified resources necessary to build the trail. MSP does say additional parties (private, public and corporate) will be needed.

“Why is there no projection of revenue,” asked Mac McNally from Lake of the Ozarks.

“This is not a benefit cost analysis, this is our experience of the Katy Trail,” Sutherland said. “Most of these assumptions are pretty significant.”

McNally said the state didn’t have any positives there. 

“If you are looking at anything, the state would put out some kind of benefit. Physical activity, taking horses and buggies off of Highway 52,” McNally continued.

Sutherland said when the state is looking at developing a park, this is what they have to consider.

“I wouldn’t consider it not supportive, but it’s not all here,” McNally challenged.

Sutherland was asked to name something positive in the room that would make a resident want the trail.

“What about the culture resources or the amenities along the trail?” Sutherland asked. 

The culture resources consisted of a history of the railroad. Amenities included the cost to repair bridges and tunnels.

“We want to share information we have and provide an opportunity for the public to provide input,” Sutherland said. “Help us to figure out how people are thinking and what they consider important. We also want people to understand some of the challenges.”

Sutherland said nothing about the 8,415 comments from all over the state solicited by former governor Eric Greitens’ administration. The comments were 98.6 percent in support of the trail..

“We also want to talk about the alternatives,” Sutherland said. “The different ways other states do it. We wanted to try to do that with a lot of staff on hand to answer questions.”

An alternatives poster board showed two possibilities if MSP does not accept the former railroad from Ameren. The decision will either remain with Ameren as the Missouri Central Railroad owner or an alternate trail sponsor will have the option to accept the trail. 

If MSP does sign the interim trail use agreement, they could accept and develop the corridor, accept less than the entire corridor, or partner with other trail sponsors.

“There is a lot that has to go into it for long-term responsibility,” Sutherland said. “We are putting a lot of energy into the best course of action.”

Lolle Boettcher asked Sutherland if there had been a lot of push back to the trail going through.

“Most have been positive, some have concerns,” he said. “Everyone has been considerate.”

The room was crowded with people and staff from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and MSP. Officials included MSP Director Ben Ellis, Deputy Director David Kelly, park officers, real estate agents, program managers, and more.

“We picked locations for meetings in towns along the corridor where hopefully people wouldn’t have to drive more than 35 miles,” Sutherland said. “We are aware of the challenges and opportunities and want to make sure the public is aware of the challenges and opportunities.”

Boettcher asked Sutherland what MSP’s next step was from the community meetings and how people could help them make a decision.

“Fill out the comment cards,” Sutherland said. “There is support. Are people opposed to it. The next step in the process is to get to decision making.”

MSP has been charged with collecting information and making a recommendation to the governor. While no information was available at the meeting about when MSP would have to complete the trail, Sutherland estimated it would take the state around 25 years. The same as the Katy Trail.

STB (the federal agency Surface Transportation Board) does not require that the state do anything with the trail if it is accepted. Sutherland was asked if the state was aware that organizations such as MoRIT and other communities are saving to pay to build their own trails. Was the state keeping track to take those amounts off their estimations? MoRIT has $600,000 in donations saved for the trail.

“These meetings talk a lot about the cost, but they don’t talk a lot about the benefits,” McNally said again.

Sutherland said MSP doesn’t have an amount of funds or money from the organizations. They do have letters of support submitted from communities along the rail line,

Glenn Meyer from the West County area said he and his group traveled over an hour-and-a-half to be at the meeting because they want to see the trail go through.

“We have met at least eight that are here from St. Louis,” Meyer said. “They came here to see the trail built because of the loop.”

Meyer said they have driven through many towns along the Rock Island since the trail was proposed and people are excited.

Sheila Ruhl of Vienna said she is definitely for the trail.

“I see potential, growth even,” Ruhl said. “I have been on the trail and it is beautiful, complex, a challenge. It would bring a whole different crowd.”

“We are on the edge of an opportunity lost,” Sassmann wrote in an email Tuesday morning. “I have several take-a-ways from the state parks trail meeting in Owensville. There is no support from the legislators or from the governor’s office. The political voices are saying ‘no new state parks.’”

Sassmann, from Bland, has several businesses and has restored buildings in the downtown area in preparation for the trail.

“While there may be a consensus that trail development is a good thing for a lot of reasons, there is no money to develop the trail, “
Sassmann continued. “And there is no financial creativity at any level of authority in the government. The ultimate take-a-way, state parks would like to kick this can down the road a little farther until the political and economic climate changes. I would be surprised if state parks announced the acceptance of the entire Rock Island Trail.”

“Negotiations (between the state of Missouri and Ameren) have to be completed by Feb. 21, 2019,” Sutherland said, which is the deadline the STB set for Ameren to announce who would accept the interim trail use. “If we need to request an extension, we might. We don’t want to rush it. We want to make sure we are thorough and come to the best decision.”

(To find information presented at the meeting or to submit a comment, visit mostateparks.com/rockislandlinecorridor).

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