Jetton bikes Katy Trail and balances politics

Thursday, June 23, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- House Speaker Rod Jetton is performing a grueling balancing act -- biking the 225-mile Katy Trail State Park with his son this week while simultaneously supporting both the governor and historic preservationists in a clash over an old Katy Railroad bridge.

Sweating profusely after riding more than 30 miles in 90-degree heat, Jetton said Wednesday that he supports Republican Gov. Matt Blunt's decision to relinquish the state's right to use the Boonville bridge as part of the trail. Union Pacific Railroad Co., which owns the bridge, plans to dismantle it and reuse part of it elsewhere.

But Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said he would prefer a different outcome.

"I support what the governor's doing with the exception that I would be more than happy to sit down and try to explore ways to restore the bridge for the city of Boonville, if we could do it without state funds and raise those kind of private funds," Jetton said during a biking lunch break in Columbia.

Department of Natural Resources director Doyle Childers estimates restoring the bridge could cost anywhere from $3 million to $11 million. Jetton said that if local residents can raise some money, state and federal grants might be available to help with the rest.

Boonville residents who formed a Save the Katy Bridge committee contend it can be refurbished for less and plan to start fund-raising after getting the results of an engineering study within the next week, said committee chairwoman Paula Shannon.

Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon has sued the Department of Natural Resources, claiming the bridge cannot legally be removed without violating a 1987 agreement in which the state paid $200,000 for a stretch of the idle Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad for use as a biking and hiking trail.

A federal rails-to-trails law allows such deals so long as the rail corridor is preserved for potential railroad use in the future.

Missouri's agreement specified that the railroad would still own the Boonville bridge and keep it available for transportation use under the federal law. But it also gave the state an option to use the bridge for the trail, if it assumed liability for it.

The Katy Trail currently crosses the Missouri River over a pedestrian path on a nearby highway bridge.

Jetton is leading a group of about 35 cyclists on the weeklong ride. He said the bike trip -- organized before the bridge dispute gained much attention -- has given him a greater appreciation for both the trail and the bridge.

Among those riding with Jetton was Raytown resident Brent Hugh, president of the Missouri Bicycle Federation and a skeptic about whether the railroad bridge can be removed without jeopardizing the trail's legal standing.

"If they're going to remove the bridge, they better be darn well sure the Katy Trail is protected," Hugh said.

Jetton said he believes it is -- and that Nixon's contention to the contrary is wrong. He also disagreed with Nixon's legal argument that the legislature must approve any deal relinquishing the state's right to the bridge. Jetton said that's within the purview of the executive branch.

Nixon says neither the state's constitution nor its laws give the DNR power to relinquish an easement, which is how he describes the state's option to use the bridge. To the contrary, the legislature has passed bills conveying easements when the department wanted to do so, said spokesman Scott Holste.

"So for the speaker to seemingly want to relinquish the constitutional powers of the General Assembly to the director of DNR does seem strange," Holste said.

A Blunt spokesman said the governor appreciated Jetton's opposition to Nixon's lawsuit, but sees no reason to keep the bridge standing any longer.

"The fact is that efforts to raise private funds in the past have fallen far short of the estimated $8 million to $11 million needed to fix this old and unusable bridge," said Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson.

The judge originally assigned to the bridge lawsuit recused. On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court appointed Senior Judge C. William Kramer, a former Jackson County circuit judge, to preside over the case.

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