Dozens of proponents of the proposed Rock Island Trail gathered Friday at the Missouri Capitol and in downtown Jefferson City.
Supporters of an extension of the bike trail from Windsor to Beaufort said it is already bringing economic benefits to towns along a 47-mile stretch that opened in December.
A Jefferson City official said the city is looking at ways to connect the city to the trail.
The Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, which helps promote bicycling and advocates for new bike trails in Missouri, held the second MO Active Transportation Summit at the Jefferson City Police Department on Friday to find ways to make Missouri communities more active and sustainable. Much of the conversation centered around the Rock Island Trail and its proposed 144-mile extension.
Greg Harris, executive director of the nonprofit group Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., which partnered with the federation to hold the event, said the Katy Trail, which opened in 1996, gets plenty of attention. But as it ages and Missouri's cycling community grows, the goal is to promote other bike trails and bike infrastructure improvements, he said.
Towns on a small section of the Rock Island Trail that opened in December in western Missouri have opened their first bike shops, Harris said.
"The Katy Trail is almost ancient history," Harris said. "When you have mayors and city administrators saying, 'This is what it means to us,' that's the whole point of this."
In 2014, Ameren agreed to donate the abandoned Rock Island Line rail corridor to the state. Ever since, the plan has been on hold while the Missouri Department of Natural Resources assesses the property. Ameren currently is doing salvage work on the 144 miles of the line, which involves pulling out train tracks and railroad ties, cleaning brush and stabilizing the gravel rail bed.
A DNR spokeswoman told the News Tribune in July the department will conduct an environmental and condition assessment once salvage work is complete.
A 47-mile section of the trail opened in December, running from Pleasant Hill to Windsor, where it connects with the Katy Trail.
Proponents want the additional 144-mile segment to connect Pleasant Hill to Beaufort, which sits 60 miles west of St. Louis. The trail could then connect with the Katy Trail in Washington and create a 460-mile trail loop around the state.
The all-day summit kicked off with an 8 a.m. rally at the Capitol to draw attention to communities that want the trail extension to run through their towns. Several dozen people attended the rally, and the mayors of Versailles, Owensville, Gerald and Stover spoke about the benefits of the Rock Island Trail.
Several speakers then presented at an all-day event at the Jefferson City Police Department.
Liz Thorstensen, vice president of nonprofit advocacy group Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C., said Rust Belt cities like Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cleveland and parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland are being reinvigorated by investments in new bike trails that attract tourists and spur spending by local residents. Trails can help towns sell themselves as walkable, bikable and healthy communities to businesses, she said.
"This is putting these places that have long declined back on the map," Thorstensen said. "This is an opportunity to create a future where trail systems are part of healthy, thriving communities."
Shelby Teufel, assistant city administrator for the city of Pleasant Hill, said residents there wanted the trail for almost 20 years. In the few months since it's opened, she said, the city's downtown area is already seeing new activity from cyclists and residents. About 500 riders come through the city each month, which is a lot for the town of about 8,000 people.
"These aren't just residents that are riding," Teufel said. "These are riders from different states. Our community is becoming a destination."
Cary Parker, Gerald mayor, said the investment increased community pride in his city.
"Gerald is a Rock Island town," Parker said. "The trail will not fix every issue the city has, but it's a catalyst. It will bring new business."
The new Rock Island Trail section intersects with the Katy Trail in Windsor. Kim Henderson, a Windsor resident, rented one cabin on the Katy Trail to cyclists the past two years. Since the Rock Island Trail opened, though, she's added two more cabins to rent.
"It's made a huge difference," Henderson said.
In May, Jefferson City approved a bike and pedestrian plan proposed by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization that aims to create bike lanes and encourage people to walk and bike more. The proposed trail runs about 15 miles south of Jefferson City near Eldon.
City Engineer David Bange said the CAMPO plan studied ways to connect the Rock Island Trail with Jefferson City. Several sparsely traveled county roads lie between the trail and the city. The problem is the roads are made of asphalt, while trail riders may be equipped to ride on gravel routes.
Bange said the city still has no specific plan, but he's looked at several options.
"There are paths you can take on low-valued county roads and a combination of gravel roads that will bring you into the county's trail system," Bange said. "We're in a pretty good position to handle a route that would come into town; it's just working with the county to make that happen."