The Missouri Department of Natural Resources will preserve the 144-mile Rock Island Line Corridor, officials announced Tuesday at Rock Island Park in Eldon.
The Rock Island Line Corridor is owned by Missouri Central Railroad Company, a subsidiary of Ameren, which donated the gift to the state for the development of a walking, biking and horseback riding trail.
The two organizations have signed an interim trail use agreement to transfer ownership to DNR after fundraising efforts are complete. In the interim, the trail is not open for public use.
DNR will take ownership of the corridor if the Missouri State Parks Foundation can raise $9.8 million for initial development, security and management costs, DNR Deputy Director Dru Buntin said Tuesday.
Under the agreement, parks foundation has until Dec. 31, 2021, to raise the initial funds, according to the park's website.
"Today, the signing of the interim trail use agreement is just the next step in the process," Buntin said. "What will happen now is the State Parks Foundation will engage in a fundraising effort to raise what we've determined to be the cost over a 10-year period that would be required to just accept the corridor, not develop it."
The announcement comes 13 days ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline for DNR to decide whether to accept the gift.
Once the trail is developed, it is planned to connect to the 47.5-mile Rock Island Spur in Windsor which connects to the Katy Trail. The connections will create a 400-mile trail loop around the state.
Missouri State Parks contain 91 locations of sites and parks, including the Katy Trail, a 240-mile former rail corridor.
The decision to accept the gift was previously delayed to fully analyze the decision, Buntin said.
When DNR started looking into accepting Ameren's gift years ago, there wasn't a lot of information on what accepting the corridor and executing the agreement would look like, Buntin said.
To vet the process, DNR held two public surveys which yielded more than 10,500 comments, according to the park's website; held three public information meetings in fall 2018; and looked at each section to determine what development would look like.
The goal was to seek public input and not take funds away from the existing state parks. Partnerships with the State Parks Foundation will ensure funding is available, Buntin said.
"Once we would close on that property after the $9.8 million is raised, that would open up a number of opportunities for us in the Department of Natural Resources and Missouri State Parks to work with those communities in partnership to actually move to develop the trail, assuming we get to that point," Buntin said.
Fully developing the Rock Island Trail is estimated to cost up to $85 million, not including trail operation and maintenance, Buntin said.
Buntin told the few dozen stakeholders and community members in the crowd the multi-year effort to develop the trail would be similar to riders of the Tour de France — a 23-day bike race.
"If we decide to enter this race and work toward a fully-developed 144-mile Rock Island Line Trail, I think it will be comparable in many ways to the Tour de France," Buntin said. "It will be one immense 144-mile effort that will have to be completed in stages with incremental success — perhaps even measure in feet."
Challenges could come when repairing missing bridges, adding missing highway and developing tunnels along the corridor.
Those developments are included in the estimated development cost. Trail operation could cost approximately $576,000 annually, according to the park's website.
While the scope of the project is large, State Parks is ready to work with private and public partners, Missouri State Parks interim division director Mike Sutherland said.
"This has been a long journey getting to this point," Sutherland said. "I think that now we are ready to say yes and take the next step. That yes means that the journey continues and is really just beginning. The effort to get to this point has depended on partnerships."
"I'm hopeful and glad that we will be going on this journey together," Sutherland said.
Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, spoke regarding the adjacent landowners' concerns for the trail and safe transportation for biking residents in Versailles.
"This is one of the most polarizing issues I've had in my seven years," Wood said. "You're either really, really for this or you're really, really against it. I think the process of taking this much time and doing it right will alleviate a lot of those concerns. There is no organization that is going to be better at taking care of the farmers along the trail and putting in the fences and making sure things are done right than DNR."
If state parks becomes trail manager, fencing along the route, law enforcement and grave crossings will be in the next phase, Buntin said.
The state also plans to honor previous agreements landowners have with Ameren, he said.
Proponents of the trail celebrated the announcement with applause and cheers.
Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., a coalition of businesses, organizations and citizens supporting the project, are excited Missouri State Parks is moving forward, Executive Director Greg Harris said.
"We're so excited," Harris said. "This is something we've been working so many years to make happen, and today is a huge day."
MoRIT will participate in fundraising for the corridor, along with other outdoor recreation groups, Harris said.
In August, Gov. Mike Parson signed the Rock Island Trail State Park Endowment Fund, allowing individuals and organizations to donate to the trail.
Donations can also be made to Missouri State Parks Foundation.
Also on Tuesday, Ameren gifted the Eldon Depot on 6th Street to the city of Eldon. The structure will be renovated and developed into a museum, welcome center or new headquarters for the Chamber of Commerce, said Mark Birk, senior vice president of consumer and power operations for Ameren Missouri.
Ameren sees this as an opportunity for tourism, outdoor entertainment and economic development, Birk said.
The city is thankful for the effort and is looking forward to owning the depot, Eldon Mayor Larry Henderson said.
In Eldon last year, a pedestrian signal that would allow a pedestrian to stop road traffic and safely cross the street was installed at U.S. 52 and Rock Island Trail crossing, which was part of the plan, Eldon R-1 Superintendent Matt Davis said Tuesday.
Other towns along the corridor, such as Owensville, Rosebud and Gerald, are excited about the safety and local use development would provide.
Several students will use the trail as a safe way to get to school in those communities, said Jody Miles, former vice president of MoRIT and current trail advocate.