Reaction to Rock Island Trail development on separate tracks

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ARGYLE - For years, the Rock Island rail line carried trains across Missouri, straight through towns like Eldon, Freeburg and Belle. Now, plans are on track to convert the railway, largely abandoned for several decades, into a biking and walking trail.

Proponents of the trail call it a path to economic progress for the communities along the abandoned rail corridor. They cite the success of the Katy Trail, which draws an estimated 400,000 visitors and generates an $18.6 million economic impact annually.

"This trail is already transforming communities," said Greg Harris, the executive director of Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc.

Harris said the trail could boost tourism and enhance the lives of citizens in trailside communities by providing access to safe, affordable recreation.

In towns like Owensville, Harris said, the trail could provide students with a safe walking path to school.

But some landowners along the proposed trail route say they like living off the beaten path, and they aren't looking forward to the potential increase in tourist traffic.

The first spur of the Rock Island Trail, a 47-mile stretch between Pleasant Hill and Windsor, opened in late 2016.

Utility company Ameren expects to transfer an additional 144 miles of rail corridor to the state later this year for development into a trail.

That 144-mile segment will stretch from Windsor to Beaufort. The Rock Island Trail will intersect with the Katy Trail at Windsor to form one of the nation's—if not the world's—longest contiguous rails-to-trails recreational paths.

But farmer and small-town mayor Chris Brundick of Argyle said "we never intended to be a tourist town," and many residents living in Argyle "don't want the world walking through their backyards." 

Brundick said some of the small towns that dot the trail, like Argyle, lack the resources to support increased tourism and trail traffic.

"Trespassing, property rights, emergency services—those are all things we just don't have answers to," Brundick said. "But no one has approached us and asked us what our concerns are as far as being a small town and having to potentially provide emergency services."

The proposed trail runs right through Brundick's farm, and he said he's concerned about maintaining access to his farm ground once the trail is developed. He must often drive heavy equipment down his farm road, which crosses the abandoned rail corridor, to get to his fields. With a trail there, he said, he fears his farm ground might not be as accessible.

The Rock Island Trail features several unique sights, including behemoth bridges and railroad tunnels that stretch the length of several football fields.

One measure under consideration in the state legislature could temporarily derail plans to develop the Rock Island Trail into a new state park, however.

If passed, the bill would prohibit the Missouri Department of Natural Resources from acquiring land to establish new state parks until all current parks are "brought up to date and are in good working order."

One amendment would allow the state's acceptance of donated land, but the land could still not be developed until other parks' operating needs are met.