Lawmakers, citizens ‘disappointed’ at Rock Island Trail budget shutout

Rick Mihalevich, the president of the Friends of the Missouri Rock Island Trail, has been struggling to get the Rock Island Trail completed for years.

The prospect of a completed trail, a proposed 144-mile ribbon from Kansas City through Mid-Missouri, waned after Missouri Office of Administration Budget Director Dan Haug testified in a hearing there wasn’t enough room in the 2023 budget to fund the trail.

Haug said he didn’t “see a clear path forward” for the trail, but Mihalevich, a former Jefferson City councilman, remained hopeful the trail could continue.

“I’m not giving up on this year’s session to have money,” Mihalevich said. “That’s just flow-through money, it’s not even money out of our general fund. It’s not over ‘til they make a finalized state budget. Having said that, I think it’s extremely hard for the Missouri General Assembly to ignore Missourians — and the towns along the trail — on their want and need for economic development and outdoor recreation activities.”

If completed, Rep. Bruce Sassman, R-Bland, said the trail could form a 430-mile loop with the Katy Trail, which could be a major boost to the “agritourism” industry in Missouri.

“The loop trail would be unlike anything else in the country,” Sassman said to the News Tribune. Mihalevich agreed, saying it could completely change how the country views Missouri and connect towns across the state like Jefferson City, Eugene and Eldon.

“We’re not just talking about a loop, we’re talking about a world-class loop,” Mihalevich said. “The sky is the limit, we were on the cusp of building something like no other state. Yet we seem to always want to put Missouri at the 30th or 25th in some sort of ranking. We have an opportunity to be the first and the best, but we choose mediocrity and short-sightedness and individuals over (all) Missourians.”

Sassman also said overlooking the trail will be a a major missed opportunity to revitalize rural communities and make Missouri a destination for recreation and outdoor activities.

“You know, there are people who are just opposed to this — state ownership of land — or opposed to state parks. (Some people) have been opposed to national parks since the very beginning. There are people who felt like we didn’t need the Grand Canyon,” he continued.

In previous years, Gov. Mike Parson was vocal about his support for the trail, he mentioned it in his 2022 State of the State address, asking for $69.3 million in the budget. The House approved $70 million for the trail in its budget proposal last year.

While that money made it onto the approved House budget, it failed to make it through the Senate in 2022.

Parson recently told the News Tribune he hadn’t heard any updates about the trail this session and that its future with state lawmakers remains to be seen.

“I haven’t talked about it,” he said. “I just really haven’t. I mean, we’ve got a lot going on working on the infrastructure and workforce development pieces, I just haven’t heard much about it this year.”

Despite the fact that Haug said there wasn’t enough money, Sassman — a vocal advocate for the trail — said he was still hopeful for other opportunities for the trail to continue during this session.

“The only thing that could happen is that there could be an amendment on the floor,” Sassman said to the News Tribune. “They could amend the budget to include some funding for the Rock Island Trail. It will be interesting to see whether or not the House is still supportive and it would be interesting to see whether or not there’s a majority of voices in the House that support the development of a state park.”

Mike Sutherland, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said earlier this year that the department had received $2.7 million in grants to help continue the project.

In February, an eight-year-long lawsuit on the behalf of some landowners along the Rock Island corridor was settled. The Federal Appeals Court in Washington ruled the landowners were entitled to compensation, which would be paid for by the federal government.

The settlement did not rule that the state had to return any land back to its owners from before the Rock Island railway and the compensation paid to the landowners named in the suit would not affect the trail or its funding.

When asked if he thought Parson backpedaled on his support for the trail, Sassman said he was unhappy that the governor wasn’t as vocal with his support this year.

“I’m just kind of disappointed that the governor didn’t add something, but he didn’t think there was a pathway,” Sassman said.