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Missouri awarded negotiation extension for Rock Island Line Corridor trail

Missouri officials now have until the end of the year to continue negotiations over the proposed Rock Island Line Corridor — a 144-mile portion of a former railroad some hope to turn into a trail. 

The extension for the Interim Trail Use Agreement between the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Missouri Central Railroad was granted until Dec. 31, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board said this week.  

“This will allow the time for potential partnerships to be explored and developed by the Missouri State Park Foundation,” Mike Sutherland, deputy division director of Missouri State Parks, said in a statement. “We are glad the Surface Transportation Board has granted the time to fully explore interest.” 

The Rock Island Line Corridor is owned by the Missouri Central Railroad Company, an affiliate of Ameren Missouri. It stretches for more than 144 miles — from Windsor to Beaufort. 

The Missouri Central Railroad Company has begun the process of giving up the corridor and is in talks with DNR to transfer it over through “railbanking” to become a state park trail. But one of the biggest roadblocks for DNR is cost, Sutherland said. 

It is expected to cost between $65 million to $85 million to fully develop the trail, officials have said. It is also estimated to cost $576,000 (or $4,000 per mile) per year to operate. 

“Currently, a big project development like this doesn’t fit into our budget,” Sutherland told The Missouri Times. Missouri’s state parks are primarily funded by a parks, soils, and water sales tax as well as earnings from camping fees or tours. 

“We’re really putting an emphasis on maintenance and repair of our current system now,” Sutherland said. 

The deadline extension allows Missouri officials to continue exploring other funding options — such as endowments or utilizing local communities. It also allows officials to research the Rock Island Trail State Park Endowment Fund established by a Senate bill Gov. Mike Parson signed in July. 

The fund will accept private money to go toward operating, maintaining, and developing the corridor as it’s operated or owned by DNR. 

Sutherland said he’s “pretty optimistic” officials can “get to a point where we would come to an agreement” but contended it is possible there could be no path forward for DNR taking over the Rock Island Line Corridor. 

It’s up to the nonprofit Missouri State Park Foundation to come up with a fundraising strategy, according to a news release from DNR. 

“We are excited for the Missouri State Park Foundation to take a role in developing support for the project,” Dru Buntin, deputy director of DNR, said in a statement. “The foundation will be critical in bringing together the non-governmental partners that an undertaking of this size will require.”

Greg Harris, executive director of the Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc., said he was “encouraged” by the extension decision and “hopeful” that trail communities could soon begin applying for grants.

“We are hopeful that Missouri State Parks will accept Ameren’s generous gift of 144 miles of former Rock Island Railroad Corridor by the end of this year,” Harris told The Missouri Times. “We expect that partnerships, charitable gifts and government grants will be equally critical to this project’s success.”

Officials don’t have a timeline of how long it would take to develop the trail, but Sutherland said it could be done piecemeal, pointing to the 240-mile Katy Trail

Individuals can find out more about the project here.