COLUMBIA — Missouri bicycle enthusiasts are waiting with great anticipation for a decision that could create a second trans-state bike trail running east to west across the state.
Ameren Missouri owns a 145-mile Rock Island rail corridor stretching from Windsor to Beaufort and is in the last phase of a decision process that could lead to the train corridor being turned into a public bike path.
Although the company said in early August that it would decide on the fate of the rail line by the end of the month, Ameren is taking a few more weeks to come to a decision. An Ameren representative said the company would not comment on the ongoing internal process until a decision is made.
In late July, Ameren received a bid from the Rails to Trails Conservancy to salvage the rail line and transfer the property to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, according to Charles Montange, a legal adviser to the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, said he is pleased that Ameren is deciding the fate of the rail corridor slowly.
"It is good news, they are taking their time," Hugh said. "They are not rushing through this because they want to do the right thing."
Hugh said his organization supports the Rails to Trails Conservancy's bid to have the corridor "railbanked," a term used to declare a rail line inoperative but which preserves the corridor for public use. The process allows the corridor to be preserved should the federal government in the future determine that the rail line must be restored.
No train has run across the Rock Island corridor since 1981. According to Chrysa Niewald, the president of Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., many small towns along the former rail track suffered as they depended on the railway for their economic well being. Hugh said he sees a bike path as a new economic boon for the region attracting bicyclist tourists from around the country.
In 2012, an economic impact report on the similar Katy Trail found that the 400,000 visitors using the bikeway generated a total of $18.5 million for the state. His organization, in collaboration with the Rails to Trails Conservancy and Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., collected more than 11,000 signatures on a petition urging Ameren to create the bike path.
"We gathered signatures from the local communities, people around the state and others from around the world who are interested in a large bike trail," Hugh said.
The rail line cannot be used by Ameren to transfer coal from a coal plant in Labadie due to an agreement the utility made with Union Pacific in 1999. Ameren attempted to have the agreement changed to use the rail line in early 2013 but the Surface Transportation Board denied the request. Trees have grown in many areas of the line and the development of a bike trail would take years to come to fruition.
There is an additional 50-mile section of the line, owned by Ameren closer to St. Louis, that is an operative rail line, according to Montange. Rail service there will be unaffected if the Rails to Trails Conservancy's bid is accepted.
"We offered a bid that is both fully compliant with Surface Transportation Board regulations in transferring a rail line and that does not deny rail service to anyone in the operative parts of the line," Montange said.
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