Hurdles remain for Katy Trail extension

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Katy Trail cyclists hoping to pedal even closer to Kansas City after the state's $180 million Taum Sauk settlement provided funds for the path might want to wait before climbing onto their bikes.

A 46-mile westward trail extension is one of the key elements of the state's settlement with Ameren Corp. over the 2005 Taum Sauk reservoir collapse.

But despite that deal, which was announced last week, significant hurdles remain before cyclists, hikers and horseback riders can use a new section of what is already the nation's longest recreational path carved from a converted rail bed.

Money, property issues

First, lawmakers must agree to commit the $18 million Ameren payment for trail expansion to its intended use. The state Department of Natural Resources has to keep the project within that budget.

And still unresolved is whether property owners along the dormant Rock Island rail corridor where the extension will be built must be compensated financially -- and if so, how much and in what amount.

The Katy Trail currently runs from suburban St. Louis to Clinton, about 75 miles southeast of Kansas City and 15 miles south of Windsor, where the proposed new segment would start. An extension to Pleasant Hill in Cass County would put the trail on the fringe of the Kansas City area.

Once a Reynolds County judge approves the Nov. 27 consent agreement between Ameren and Attorney General Jay Nixon, the state Department of Natural Resources has three years to complete the trail addition.

Otherwise, "any remaining such unobligated funds may be expended by DNR for any park purpose consistent with law," the agreement states.

Reservoir connection

Kurt Schaefer, a former deputy director of the department who helped negotiate the settlement, said the three-year deadline reflects the importance of a quick resolution and compensation for lost recreation opportunities created by the reservoir breach. The resulting flood caused extensive damage to Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park in Southeast Missouri.

"Nobody is starting from scratch," Schaefer said, noting that plans to extend the Katy Trail have been discussed for years. "Three years should be plenty of time."

As for the project costs, Schaefer said the $18 million estimate represents a downward adjustment of a 2005 Ameren projection that pegged the cost of Katy Trail expansion at $20 million to $25 million.

The Revenue Department's revision was based on the agency's extensive experience with trail construction, he said.

"Yes, they can construct the trail for $18 million," said Schaefer, now a private practice attorney in Jefferson City.

Schaefer said the state is still exploring the legal ramifications of trail expansion on nearby property owners.

The original segment of what is now a 236-mile Katy Trail was built on an abandoned rail bed.

The western leg, though, will be built alongside railroad tracks, because Ameren, which owns the Rock Island corridor, has not completely abandoned the notion of reviving the tracks for future rail use.

That will not only increase construction costs but also creates some potential legal questions about right of way that remain unanswered.

"The concept of rails with trails is different than rails to trails," Schaefer said.

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