June 25--In his final weeks as governor last December, Jay Nixon announced that a 144-mile stretch of the former Rock Island rail line was on track for transfer to the state by the end of this year for eventual use as a bicycling-hiking trail.
Now state officials under Nixon's successor, Eric Greitens, are reconsidering whether to accept the planned donation of the rail corridor by Ameren, which bought it in 1999 through a subsidiary.
They're essentially doing a cost-benefit analysis to determine the potential long-term impact on the state and the towns along the corridor, stretching from Beaufort in Franklin County to Windsor in western Missouri.
"The Rock Island Trail project stands to be a significant undertaking, and it is essential to understand the immediate and long-term liabilities, costs, benefits and opportunities specific to this project," said Connie Patterson, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Natural Resources.
Rich Germinder, the agency's legislative lobbyist, said the previous administration had not provided enough answers on which to make a decision.
As part of its review, DNR last week began soliciting public comment on the project through a link on its state parks website.(tncms-asset)5bf71594-59de-11e7-a74d-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
The administration's reconsideration has spurred two groups that have been pushing for the trail to urge members to use the link to express their support.
The organizations are Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., a nonprofit coalition of trail supporters, and the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation.
The bicycle-pedestrian group also wants people to contact the governor's office by email or phone.
"The Rock Island Trail is in jeopardy unless we speak up now," Brent Hugh, the federation's executive director, said in an alert posted Thursday on the group's website.
However, Hugh said in an interview that he's hopeful the new administration in the end will accept the Ameren donation once Missourians weigh in on the subject.
"No politician is going to do that kind of a project unless there's strong public support behind it," he said.
Another supporter of the trail is the Missouri Parks Association, a booster group for state parks.
Association president Steve Nagle plans to raise the issue when he meets this week with Ben Ellis, who recently was appointed as the new state parks director. Ellis formerly headed Alaska's park system.
There are opponents as well, including the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, which has said the trail would be disruptive to nearby farm operations.
Moreover, hundreds of landowners have sued the federal government since a federal board in 2015 granted interim recreational trail use of the 144-mile section.
One offshoot of the state review was its June 5 request to officials in Belle, one of the towns along the corridor, to suspend for a year its efforts to build its part of the trail. Belle had previously won approval for a $72,328 federal grant but DNR said it couldn't issue a notice to proceed at this time.
Warren Wood, an Ameren vice president, said the company remains committed to working with communities along the route and others and this year would complete its ongoing removal of rails and ties and clearing vegetation.
However, he said "we have not made any decisions on next steps for this resource if the state decides not to accept the property."
The federal agency has set a deadline of next February for the state to sign the interim use agreement.
Hugh said it's possible that some private group would emerge to oversee the trail if the state backed out. But he said the state parks division is the most sensible option.
The division already runs the Katy Trail State Park, an earlier rails-to-trails effort linking St. Charles County to the western Missouri town of Clinton.
Last December, the division opened 47.5 miles of trail along a Rock Island Line segment west of Windsor. It's called the Rock Island spur of the Katy Trail.
Soon after Greitens took office, his administration began reviewing all land purchases and closed a new state park near Ironton amid irritation among some state legislators over how Nixon funded new facilities.
The policy puts a priority on maintaining and improving existing parks. The review of the Rock Island Trail plan is in keeping with that policy, officials said.
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