A stretch of railroad from Gordonville to Delta planned for abandonment may find a new use.
The Cape Girardeau County Commission heard Thursday from a group of trail enthusiasts and a representative from the city of Jackson who are looking into converting about 13 miles of tracks into a rails-to-trails project that would create a recreational area for cyclists, runners and hikers. But not everyone is excited about the prospect.
The Jackson, Gordonville and Delta Railroad submitted an application to abandon the section of railway, which has not been used since 1997, to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board on May 14. Generally, abandonment is allowed when a line has been out of service for two years. According to company president Robert L. Adams, the line is in a dangerous state of disrepair in some sections and that it would to cost $1 million per mile to put the line back into use. If allowed, the railroad would remove the rails, ties and salvageable materials.
SEMO Greenways is a group in the beginning stages of forming a not-for-profit that wants to explore options for the land left behind. Four members of the group shared their plans with the county to file an application with the Surface Transportation Board that would allow it to be used for recreational purposes.
John Dodd, owner of Cyclewerx in Cape Girardeau, said SEMO Greenways has about 15 members so far. Dodd said the group has until June 14 to formally express its interest, which would include a statement of willingness to assume financial responsibility and the intention to establish a public use for the land.
Dodd said two meetings have been held that have included landowners whose property is crossed by the rail line. He said that there has been opposition by some property owners and final plans would have to be agreeable to everyone.
"We feel like it can be a positive thing," Dodd said. "It has to work for everybody."
Dick Kiehne, former chairman of the board of trustees for Gordonville, spoke to the commission as a concerned property owner. His land has been in his family since 1883, and Kiehne said many residents in the Gordonville area see the trail as "trouble up and down the line."
Problems such as security, maintenance and possible fencing and livestock dilemmas are on the minds of landowners, he said. Farmers already face regulatory challenges when they want to spray chemicals on their fields, and Kiehne wonders how spraying would be safely possible next to trail lands.
Also, families have documents handed down for generations, Kiehne said, that promise the land would be returned to them should the railroad vacate.
Adams said that if plans for simple abandonment were to proceed, the land currently deeded to the railroad would go back to the surrounding landowners. He said no groups or railroad companies have formally approached JGD to purchase or repurpose the line.
According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy website, if negotiations are successful to create a rails-to-trails project and the parties agree on a price, "then the railroad will pass over a deed to the trail group, similar to any land acquisition."
Janet Sanders, Jackson building and planning superintendent, spoke on behalf of the city in support of creating a rails-to-trails project. She said that a regional trail system is part of the city's strategic plan.
The remaining five miles of track from Gordonville to Jackson are used by the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, a tourist excursion train. Connecting to the trail from Gordonville may be possible through a rails-with-trails project that would create a trail alongside the tracks, Sanders said.
"This is something that the city of Jackson has a stake in in the long run," Sanders said.
After receiving a rails-to-trails request, the Surface Transportation Board typically allows 180 days to develop a detailed plan and to negotiate for the transfer of the rail corridor. During that period, the railroad would be prohibited from disposing of any property or trail-related structures.
Cape Girardeau County has no governing authority in the project and was informed as a matter of county interest. Associate Commissioner Jay Purcell has said he would like to see a trail developed but questioned how it would be funded. Sanders said she would like it modeled on the Frisco Highline Trail, a roughly 35-mile trail connecting Springfield, Mo., and Bolivar, Mo., that is self-supporting without tax dollars.
Associate Commissioner Paul Koeper said the county would not likely have money to contribute for such a project, as it already maintains 300 acres of park land.
Dodd agreed that the biggest hurdle moving forward is finding the funding.
"We are by no means saying it is a slam dunk," Dodd said after the meeting. "The first thing you have to do is get your foot in the door. ... we'll see what we can accomplish from there."
The next meeting of SEMO Greenways is at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Cape Girardeau Public Library and is open to the public.
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