Developer: Connecting Rock Island Trail and Katy Trail via Washington “very likely”
Dru Buntin wasn’t surprised by the long line of people waiting to join Thursday night’s meeting on the Rock Island Trail.
“I’m glad to see this level of interest,” said Buntin, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “A lot of people have heard of it, but are really interested in learning more about what kind of plans we have, when all of this might happen and what’s next for the project.”
Buntin and other officials were at the Owensville branch of the Scenic Regional Library on Thursday to meet with property owners and area residents as part of a series of town hall meetings on the 144-mile stretch of the old Rock Island Corridor.
Eighty-three people attended the Owensville meeting.
Buntin said excitement about converting the Rock Island Corridor into a 144-mile recreational and bicycle trail came to a head after Governor Parson announced Wednesday that his proposed budget included $69.3 million to develop a 78-mile section of the old Rock Island Railroad in south-central Missouri.
Those funds come from federal COVID-19 relief funds, according to Parson.
“The Governor’s announcement is just a game changer in terms of how soon we could move forward and really get this all done,” Buntin said. “The governor sees this and we certainly view the Rock Island Trail as a huge economic development and tourism opportunity for the communities along the trail and for the state as a whole.”
By comparison, the state had previously committed $2.7 million to the project, in part through a grant from the economic development office.
“There is a big difference between $2.7 million and $69.3 million. This will drastically reduce the time it will take to open large sections of the trail,” Buntin said. “It will also allow us to assess and come up with a plan to upgrade the bridges and tunnels along the trail.”
He said while no construction schedule has been determined, construction of the Rock Island Trail will likely be a multi-year effort.
A cost study provided by the state Department of Natural Resources showed it would likely cost more than $106 million to build the trail, with the construction of two bridges in Benton County and bridge upgrades on the Osage and Gasconade rivers accounting for much of the cost.
While it remains to be seen whether the General Assembly will approve the budget request, Buntin said he and other department heads are open to meeting with Union and Washington officials who may be interested in seeing the extended trail through Franklin County to connect with Katy Trail. in rural Warren County.
The state has an ownership agreement with Ameren which has a railroad with trail option from Beaufort to Union.
“The remaining gap would be from Union to Washington and on the Katy Trail,” Buntin said. “I’m confident we could work with these communities to come up with a route that would be there to create this continuous loop that would connect the Katy Trail to both ends of the Rock Island Trail,” Buntin said.
He said he thinks it’s “very likely” that the two trails will connect in Washington in the near future.
Count rural Osage County resident Jan Sassmann among those excited about the project.
“I’ve been working on this for 35 years,” said Sassmann, who is the wife of state Rep. Bruce Sassmann, who represents parts of Osage, Cole, Miller, Phelps, Crawford and Gasconade counties and the whole county of Maries in the Legislative Body.
“This is a great opportunity for small communities,” said Jan Sassmann, who attended the Owensville meeting.
Rock Island Trail supporters head to Windsor, a community at the crossroads of the Rock Island Spur, which opened in December 2016, and the Katy Trail. Windsor officials said they saw a 400% increase in bookings at the town’s campground and overnight accommodations and local restaurants also saw an increase in attendance.
Sassmann said she lives less than two miles from the trail and hopes the opening of the Rock Island Trail will bring more people to explore the rural Missouri countryside.
“I think it would be hard not to fall in love with the natural beauty of our state on the trail (Rock Island),” Sassmann said. She thinks the bridges, especially the Gasconade River Bridge, will provide cyclists and trail users with spectacular views. The bridge is a quarter-mile trestle perched above the river and continues across rolling farmland.
“This land has not been seen by the public for so long, as Rock Island was a freight line. So unless you’re like me and remember growing up walking on tracks and tunnels and bridges, then this land hasn’t been accessible to the public,” Sassmann said. “It’s time. It’s time for the public to see it and love it.
The department is accepting public comments on the proposed development until February 25. Those wishing to make a statement should go to mostateparks.com/rockislandcorridor.
The next public hall meeting is scheduled for Jan. 25, 5:30-7 p.m., at American Legion Post 317 in Freeburg.