Decades after it was identified as a key connector to Missouri’s cross-state Katy Trail, a 13.5-mile path along the former Rock Island rail line through Jackson County is finally finished.
County officials plan to celebrate completion of the Rock Island Trail at 10 Saturday morning with a ceremony at the northernmost trailhead in parking lot L of the Truman Sports Complex, followed by other events.
The milestone comes five years after the county bought the land beneath and on either side of the trail, along with four additional miles of the corridor, from the Union Pacific Railroad Co. for $52 million. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority pledged to cover half of the bond payments for the next 30 years, as the main idea was to preserve the rail corridor for possible mass transit uses in the future.
But the trail was one of the project’s key selling points when former County Executive Mike Sanders proposed it, leaving it to his successor, Frank White, to carry out the construction phase.
The notion that the former Rock Island railroad route would become a trail goes back to the 1990s, when plans were first outlined for MetroGreen, a network of multi-use trails through the area that was only then beginning to take shape, primarily in Johnson County.
Many of those proposed trails on both sides of the state line have been built and more linkages are on the way. But the Rock Island Trail was always seen as both a special challenge and opportunity.
A challenge because the corridor’s previous owner was for many years not particularly interested in selling. An opportunity because its construction would help link the MetroGreen network with the Katy, whose spur to the Kansas City area at Pleasant Hill was completed at the end of 2016.
Sanders spent years brokering the deal with the Union Pacific, announcing it only months before resigning at the beginning of 2016 in the midst of his third, four-year term. He would later plead guilty to a federal charge in connection with the abuse of campaign contributions, which had nothing to do with the Rock Island Trail project.
An 8-mile gap between the Pleasant Hill Trail network and the new Rock Island Trail still remains. But until a plan is devised to convert the Greenwood Gap, as it’s commonly known, into a trail, cyclists will continue to rely on less-than-direct road connections to get from the Rock Island to the Katy spur in Pleasant Hill.
Long-haul bicycle trekkers have long dreamed of having a Kansas City connection to the Katy that would allow someone to pedal on a mostly flat trail route from the Kansas-Missouri border to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, encountering cars only at the occasional road crossing. Thanks to the Rock Island’s completion, those so inclined can now make that 300-mile journey, then turn around and ride back or let Amtrak bring them home.
Those satisfied with a bit less exercise are also enjoying the new trail and have been walking and biking on the trail’s southern half, which includes the 441-foot-long Vale Tunnel, for more than a year now.
During construction, the northern half was also seeing some traffic earlier this year, but the improved sections ended abruptly south of downtown Raytown. Anyone hoping to ride or walk much past Crane Brewing, a popular stop along the trail for thirsty bicyclists, was met with a muddy mess during the wet spring and could not get to the southern leg.
The northern half was more expensive and more difficult to construct because the county had to build alongside the rail bed rather than on top of it. Adjoining landowners had sued the county for removing the rails and building the southern half on the railbed in what they said was a violation of federal rules.
Work was shut down for a time, after the federal Surface Transportation Safety Board agreed with the landowners. Work began anew when Jackson County agreed to follow the federal guidelines.
The northern half cost $11.6 million to build and is hillier than the southern portion as a result of not following the exact route of the trains that stopped running through the corridor 40 years ago. New bridges also had to be built.
The southern half cost $3.4 million to construct.
County officials are glad to have the project finished, and so are businesses along the way that hope to benefit from hungry and thirsty customers.
Crane Brewing for one. The trail is 60 feet from the brewery’s front door.
“We couldn’t be in a better position to enjoy the benefits of people taking advantage of the trail’s recreational opportunities,” co-owner Michael Crane said.