ST. LOUIS — Missouri bicyclists proudly tout the Katy Trail as the nation's longest off-road route carved from a converted railroad line.
Now some two-wheel enthusiasts hope to convert another abandoned rail line into a second cross-state trail that could link up to the Katy, offer nearly 400 miles of soft gravel and further advance their eventual goal of a trail network spanning the length of Missouri, from St. Louis to Kansas City.
The proposed Missouri Rock Island Trail would stretch from Windsor in the west for about 130 miles to the Franklin County town of Beaufort in the east while twice crossing the 236-mile Katy Trail, which is also a state park. The project grew out of local trail efforts in communities such as Belle, Eldon, Gerald and Owensville but now has the backing of the nation's largest trails organization.
"It could be an amazing tourism draw for these communities," said Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation. "We're looking at a (nearly) 400-mile trail system that would be the envy of all states."
A subsidiary of utility provider Ameren Corp. owns the Rock Island line, doing business as the Missouri Central Railroad Company. From Franklin County to St. Louis, 40 miles of the 200-mile rail corridor remain in use by freight operators.
To the west, Ameren is "finalizing arrangements" to transfer 42 miles of the Rock Island line to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources as part of a 2008 settlement between the state and the St. Louis-based utility over the December 2005 collapse of the Taum Sauk Reservoir in southeast Missouri, according to a written statement. That will provide cyclist and pedestrian access to Pleasant Hill, on the edge of the Kansas City suburbs at what will be known as Rock Island State Park.
That still leaves 129 miles of Rock Island corridor from Windsor to towns north of Lake of the Ozarks such as Eldon and Owensville east to Beaufort, which is near both Union and Washington.
Ameren has issued a request for proposals and expects to decide by the end of August whether to sell or lease the land for the trail project or instead opt to sell the unused track to one of several salvage companies that have expressed interest. The trails project is being organized by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy with the support of the state parks system, said DNR spokeswoman Gena Terlizzi.
The Rails-to-Trails bid stipulates that the corridor must be "railbanked," a legal term that means the corridor is made available for public use but allows for the reactivation of rail service by keeping the existing tracks intact.
Chrysa Niewald, a retired Owensville schools administrator and leader of the nonprofit Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., said that Ameren initially didn't include the group among its prospective bidders but subsequently both opened the bidding process and extended the submission deadline.
Niewald said that Owensville and other small towns whose economic fortunes rose and fell with the railroad's development and decline are in desperate need of the fiscal boost she envisions a new trail could provide.
"When the railroad stopped operating, the communities started to cease to exist," she said. "They began to die."
A quarter-century ago, some rural residents feared a new path along the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad line, or MKT for short, would mean more trash, noise and misbehavior. Instead, towns such as Boonville, Rocheport and Hermann have embraced the Katy Trail, with bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and bike repair shops sprouting in once-vacant town squares.
Hugh said he hopes that Ameren considers not only its bottom line but also its sense of corporate responsibility to the communities it serves. The company's written statement does not mention a preferred use for the rail line.
"Let's make sure it becomes a trail rather than an abandoned garbage corridor," he said.