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Old rail path could bring millions in revenue to Missouri towns as trail

 The Rock Island Corridor, a section of the former Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, will be converted into a 144-mile trail.
Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc.
The Rock Island Corridor, a section of the former Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, will be converted into a 144-mile trail.

An old rail path that runs 144 miles from Windsor to Beaufort, Missouri, is now set to become a recreational trail and is projected to bring millions of dollars in revenue to Missouri towns.

Advocates of the trail pushed for years for the out-of-service Rock Island Corridor, a section of the former Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, to be converted into a recreational trail.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources announced earlier this week it would accept ownership of the rail line. Missouri State Parks will manage and develop the trail.

Missouri Central Railroad, a subsidiary of Ameren, donated the property to the state.

“We are inspired by the trail’s potential to provide Missourians and visitors with a new way to enjoy our beautiful state, bringing tourism dollars and economic development to communities along the corridor,” said Mark Birk, a spokesperson for Ameren in a statement.

Concerned about the decline of the nation’s rail structure, in the 1980s Congress established a process known as “railbanking,” which allows trail agencies to adopt out-of-service rail corridors through an agreement with the rail company.

The Missouri DNR and Missouri Central Railroad signed the Interim Trail Use Agreement in December 2019. The transfer needed to be finalized by Dec. 31 of this year.

Missouri State Parks estimates that fully developing the Rock Island Trail in sections over several years and preparing it for use by walkers, runners and bikers will cost $100 million.

When the trail is ready, visitors will be able to stop every few miles to visit restaurants, wineries and stores in towns along the cross-state trail, said Greg Harris, executive director of Missouri Rock Island Trail.

“There are huge benefits for communities with recreational trails because when people come to communities they're hungry, they're thirsty, they may want to spend the night,” Harris said.

Researchers found in 2012 that the 240-mile Katy Trail, which runs across most of the state of Missouri, has a direct economic impact of $18 million per year and attracts 400,000 visitors annually.

“Much like the Katy Trail, we expect the Rock Island Trail to help grow local economies and small businesses, create jobs, and provide Missouri with another great outdoor recreational resource,” Gov. Mike Parson said in a statement. “Missouri’s tourism industry is strong, and projects like this one only help it grow stronger. We are proud to support the development of the Rock Island Trail.”

Harris predicts that the new trail will produce a return on investment even larger than the annual return of the Katy Trail, because it will pass through more towns with restaurants and amenities.

The completed Rock Island Trail State Park will stretch from Union to Pleasant Hill, near Kansas City. At 204 miles, it will be the fourth-longest rail-trail in the nation and form a loop with the Katy Trail.

Missouri State Parks will begin holding open houses next year to get feedback from community members about what features they would like the trail to have.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Niara Savage