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Futile fight over MKT bridge rages on under Nixon

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:50 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

The Supreme Court of the State of Missouri has upheld the decision of the Western District Court of Appeals that the Union Pacific Railroad is the rightful owner of the former MKT bridge spanning the Missouri River at Boonville. Regrettably for the taxpayers, Missouri’s Quixotic Man of LaMancha, Attorney General and candidate for governor Jay Nixon, vows to continue tilting at this windmill.

Historically, the bridge was part of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (Katy) until absorbed by the Union Pacific Railroad which had no plans to use the line, intending its abandonment instead. The Missouri Bicycle Federation, supported by hiking and environmental enthusiasts, negotiated with the railroad to convert the line for use as a trail with an agreement by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to be the administrator.

The proposal enjoyed less than an obstruction-free path due to objections by landowners over property rights. By law, abandoned railway right of way reverts to the property owner. However, by convincing the courts that the 1987 agreement to designate the trail as a “rail bank,” thus preserving the fantasy of possible restoration of the rail line, the rightful ownership was usurped. I won’t dwell on the subsequent litigation other than to say the owners did enjoy a symbolic victory at day’s end.

The Katy Trail, as it is now known, has become an extremely attractive venue for cycling, hiking, jogging, bird watching and other recreational activities. The trail has achieved recognition as a valuable mid-Missouri tourist attraction with no sign of its popularity waning as it provides healthy, family-friendly recreation.

The present dispute originated soon after the U.S. Coast Guard declared the Boonville railroad bridge a hazard to navigation and ordered its removal. In keeping with the best interests of recycling, the railroad initiated plans for its dismantling and floating down the river in sections for use in construction of a new bridge over the Osage River.

Bicycle and other trail enthusiasts, in what can be described accurately as a fit of paranoia, launched a campaign to block the move, in the mistaken belief that removal of the bridge would terminate the legitimacy of the entire Katy Trail in that it would no longer be viable as a rail line. Citing unnamed enemies of the trail, the Missouri Bicycle Federation enlisted the support of Boonville and other area residents in an effort to save the bridge and the trail. Attorney General Nixon and the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center joined in a lawsuit to block the removal of the structure.

A dollop of common sense and cooperation in lieu of partisan politics could have forestalled this self-inflicted problem, saving the state some $300,000 in legal fees. As noted by the Department of Natural Resources’ deputy director, “there is no substance to the argument that the removal would create severance of the trail. The trail doesn’t go over the bridge and has never gone over the bridge.”

Additionally, that the existence of the Katy Trail is an accepted fact in being, that it is a Missouri treasure enjoying near state park recognition and that neither the department nor the railroad has any designs on closing nor otherwise interfering with its operations fairly well guarantees its status. In matters of law, the trail has precedence on its side.

Inasmuch as the Coast Guard declared the bridge a hazard to navigation and the state Supreme Court declared the Union Pacific Railroad owns the right to its removal, it would appear prudent to end a not only losing but also unnecessary exercise in futility. The span was in no way indispensable to the continued existence of the trail nor would it have been other than a veritable albatross to the city of Boonville and to the state as an economic liability.

The nostalgic import attached to venerable landmarks is one that generates sympathy; however, it often exceeds the realm of reason. Brooklyn survived the loss of Ebbetts Field, and Columbia’s beloved Shack is no more. Mr. Nixon, it is time to move on.

J. Karl Miller of Columbia retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. E-mail him at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.


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