COLUMBIA — Cyclists who descend on Missouri from across the country to ride the Katy Trail no longer see steel barriers, no-trespassing signs and other warnings once set out by wary neighbors.
As the hiking, biking and equestrian trail celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, rural residents eager to help Spandex-clad tourists part with sweaty, crumpled dollar bills stuffed into snug bike shorts welcome plans to extend the path farther west to Kansas City.
"It couldn't happen quick enough, as far as most people are concerned," Pleasant Hill city administrator Mark Randall said.
Early opponents worried about trash, noise and public encroachment onto their land. Some rural property owners unsuccessfully sued the federal government over what they called illegal taking of private property.
These days, merchants in towns such as Augusta, Dutzow, Hermann and Marthasville meet regularly to discuss ways to further boost tourism along the trail.
"The Katy Trail is a success," said Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation. "All of the horrible things that were supposed to happen didn't."
The trail runs from Machens near St. Louis west to Clinton, which is 77 miles southeast of Kansas City. The proposed Rock Island Trail-Katy Connector will extend the trail northwest, running from Windsor, 15 miles north of Clinton, to Pleasant Hill, 35 miles southeast of Kansas City.
The extension will be paid for with $18 million from a 2008 settlement between the state and St. Louis-based utility AmerenUE over the December 2005 collapse of the Taum Sauk reservoir in southeast Missouri. A breach sent a wall of water down a mountain into Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park.
Ameren also agreed to let the state use its easement along the old Rock Island rail line.
Construction on the first stretch of a longer trail could begin as soon as this summer, with the entire project expected to be complete in three to five years. The DNR has proposed locating trailheads in Pleasant Hill, Hadsell, Medford, Chilhowee and Leeton.
But it's still not clear how much private land the state will need to buy and whether it can buy the land and do all the work for $18 million, said Jane Lale, a program director with the state Department of Natural Resources.
"It's going to be difficult to get it all done for that (amount)," she said.
While the existing trail was built on top of former rail tracks, the western section will be built next to the rail bed so Ameren can run trains in the future if it wishes. A DNR summary says that will give hikers and bikers "a different experience by following the contour of the land at a lower elevation."
On Saturday, Gov. Jay Nixon will commemorate the 1990 opening of the trail's first segment in Rocheport. The trail was expanded in 1996 and 1999, and an 11-mile eastern extension from St. Charles to Machens opened last year. It is considered the country's longest recreational path carved from a converted rail line.