A bill passed this week by the Missouri Senate could pave the way for the Rock Island Trail. The legislation that includes the Rock Island Endowment fund is headed to the governor to be signed into law.

Senate Bill 196, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-District 6, which authorizes the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to award grants to preserve, protect or restore historic county courthouses, was amended to include a provision to allow donations to be collected for the development and maintenance of the trail if the donation is made to the DNR. 

According to State Rep. David Wood, R-District 58, the legislation also protects state revenue; as the only money that can be spent on this project has to come from the endowment fund. The state does have the option of adding to the donations in the endowment fund through the state’s general revenue fund if an appropriation is made in the budget. 

Wood had sponsored a Rock Island Endowment Fund bill in the Missouri House. He said he was glad to see the bill make it through the legislative process. 

“It is a good start to making the Rock Island Trail a reality while protecting state revenue,” he said. 

Wood has been an advocate for the trail, citing the recreational and economic benefit the project could bring to many of the communities he represents. In particular, Eldon and Versailles. 

Missouri Rock Island Trail Executive Director Greg Harris described the passage of the legislation as a major step forward. 

“The next steps are for Governor Parson to sign the bill and for Missouri State Parks and Ameren to reach a final agreement on the gift of the corridor,” Harris said. “This public/private partnership will pay enormous dividends to communities as the new infrastructure makes them become better places to live, work and play.” 

The Missouri Rock Island Trail organization is based in Rolla. Mo RIT has been instrumental in pushing the project forward, working with the public, Ameren and the state. 

Although there has been some concern over the delay in the state accepting the Rock Island Trail — once signed — the bill may be the catalyst to get a decision from the state. 

In 2015, Ameren agreed to donate 144 miles of railway corridor for development of a recreational hiking and biking trail under the Rails to Trails program. 

The majority of the Rock Island Railroad has been out of service since the mid-1980s after being built in the first years of the 1900s.

Since an initial Notice of Interim Trail Use was approved by the federal Surface Transportation Board in 2015, there have been multiple extensions, putting off a decision on the railbanking project that would allow the out-of-service line to be acquired by DNR from right-of-way owner Ameren/Missouri Central Railroad. A subsidiary of Ameren, MCR has offered to transfer the right-of-way for use as a trail at no cost to the state. MCR began the process of abandoning the line in 2014. 

Supporters say the trail would kickstart economic development in the communities along the 144-mile stretch. There has been some opposition raised by those who are worried about the trail’s impact regarding disruption of farms along the line and the cost for development and maintenance.

DNR estimates the development of the trail would cost from $67- to- $88 million to develop the entire corridor. A bill passed just last year would make the state responsible for fencing along the corridor.

A survey done by the state received 8,685 responses, 98 percent were in support of the trail. The Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., and the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian, two organizations that are pushing for the development of the trail, have been joined in their advocacy by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.