The bridge spat

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Here are two press releases, one from Attorney General Jay Nixon and the other from Doyle Childers, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, regarding the lawsuit over a railroad bridge at Boonville, Mo., that either is or is not part of the Katy Trail. The Katy is a popular walking and biking trail along abandoned railroad right-of-way, much of it along the Missouri River, across the midsection of the state.

Read the positions of both state officials and then ask yourself these questions: Why would the attorney general want to expose the state to millions of dollars in repair expenses and legal costs? Who do you think really owns the bridge? Why is this dispute significant now, considering the same situation has existed for several years? We'll provide some clues at the end of this editorial.

Attorney General Nixon's press release (excerpts): Attorney General Jay Nixon today filed a lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and its director to stop the proposed relinquishment of the state's interest in the old MKT bridge at Boonville to the Union Pacific Railroad. Union Pacific intends to dismantle the historic lift bridge over the Missouri River and reuse part of it as another bridge over the Osage River and salvage the remaining steel.

In 1987, the state of Missouri, under the auspices of the federal Rails to Trails Act, acquired a property interest in the bridge and the rest of the MKT right-of-way in an agreement that resulted in the creation of the 225-mile long Katy Trail State Park. Nixon says the MDNR and department director Doyle Childers do not have the authority to cede the state's interest in the bridge to benefit a private company, and for no compensation.

"This is a giveaway by the state to a private business that stands to receive at least $10 million in benefit from the proposal," Nixon said today at a news conference held alongside a spur of the Katy Trail in Columbia. "This is an unusual step for me to sue a state agency, but I have a constitutional duty to protect the assets of the state and the interests of the citizens of Missouri." ...

"In addition, neither the department director nor the governor has the authority to dispose of state property without authority from the General Assembly," Nixon said. "Furthermore, not even the General Assembly has the authority to just give away that property interest -- that is barred by the state Constitution as well. ...

Nixon said he is also concerned that creating a gap in the rail corridor could threaten the very existence of the Katy Trail.

"This park is a state treasure, drawing more than 300,000 hikers and bicyclists from around the world each year," Nixon said. "The continuation of this corridor has enormous economic and recreational benefits for Missourians. A break in the corridor at Boonville could open the door for claims that would fracture the trail, and we can't afford to let that happen."

DNR director Doyle Childers' press release: I am profoundly disappointed that the attorney general has acted on his threat to sue the people of the state to force them to spend millions of dollars on a depilated bridge that was never meant to be used as part of a trail and is years away from ever being able to carry a train.

The attorney general has acted against the state's economic interests by opposing this department's decision to allow the bridge's rightful owner to use sections of it to improve rail transit in other parts of our state benefiting both passengers and commerce at absolutely no cost to the state.

Further, it is unprecedented for an attorney general to sue his own client when there is no disagreement between this department and the governor's office over this course of action. The only logical conclusion is that the attorney general is taking this poorly reasoned action in the hopes of advancing his own political career on the backs of Missouri taxpayers. This is disgraceful and this department will do everything possible to fight this petty political power grab.

The attorney general has, over the years, effectively used the media to educate the public about his office's efforts to crack down on consumer fraud and the need for sunshine on public meetings and records, among other topics.

Nixon complains that he was not consulted before the DNR decided to give away a railroad bridge that has been useless to the trail. (The trail uses a highway bridge a few feet away.) Did Nixon bother to reason with the DNR or the governor before filing his lawsuit?

While it is a bit extreme to call the lawsuit a "petty political power grab," it does appear Nixon is eager to find disputes with Gov. Matt Blunt that will keep his name in the spotlight until the 2008 election cycle near the end of Blunt's first term.

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