For 225 miles, the Katy Trail State Park winds past sweeping Missouri River bluffs, vast prairies and postcard-ready small towns. Then it ends abruptly here in an unceremonious thud.
Unlike its eastern starting point in historic St. Charles, there are no celebratory signs, no welcome banners, no acknowledgment of the nation’s longest cycling and hiking path carved from a converted rail bed — just rocky gravel and overgrown brush in place of the trail’s packed sand and smooth, fine dirt.
Outdoor enthusiasts have long sought a 75-mile trail extension into Kansas City along an unused rail bed owned by two utilities. Now, with Gov. Matt Blunt calling on AmerenUE Corp. to consider giving up its rights to the dormant Rock Island corridor to compensate for unrelated damage from a hydroelectric plant spill, they hope the project becomes a reality.
“It makes a lot of sense to connect the two major metropolitan areas of the state to the trail,” said Brent Hugh, president of the Missouri Bike Federation.
“The thing that’s been missing is high-level support,” said Mr. Hugh, a Raytown resident whose home abuts the unused Rock Island corridor. “That’s what made the Katy Trail come together in the first place.”
The trail’s first stretch along the abandoned Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad line opened in 1990. Within a decade, it had grown to its present size, attracting cyclists and hikers from across the country.
More than 300 bike riders from 31 states and British Columbia recently descended on the trail for the state Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) annual Katy Trail ride, pedaling an average of 45 miles daily over five days.
Kansas City-area cyclists in particular voiced strong support for extending the trail. Most now have to drive more than one hour to begin their trail rides in Clinton, Windsor, Boonville or Columbia.
Mr. Blunt issued a public statement in April in support of the extension, four months after a breach of the AmerenUE Taum Sauk plant in southeast Missouri flooded Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park with 1.3 billion gallons of water.
Although Ameren is paying to clean up the flooded park, the governor suggested that the utility, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Ameren Corp., donate the Rock Island rail bed as well as land it owns adjacent to the damaged state park.
The utility has not responded to that request, but the Republican governor’s interest in such a deal hasn’t wavered, a Blunt spokesman said.
“Expanding the Katy Trail would be a great deal for the citizens of Missouri,” said spokesman Spence Jackson. “It’s something that current and future generations of Missourians could get a lot of enjoyment from.”
Ameren owns the stretch of the Rock Island corridor from Windsor — a town 15 miles north of Clinton that also sits along the Katy Trail — to the Kansas City suburb of Pleasant Hill. Union Pacific Railroad Co. owns the unused Rock Island section from Pleasant Hill to Kansas City.
An Ameren spokesman declined to discuss any potential settlement with the state, as did a spokesman for Attorney General Jay Nixon. A Union Pacific spokesman in Omaha, Neb., suggested that the company is not eager to hand over its investment.
Union Pacific’s Jim Barnes said the company recognizes the recreational value of extending the trail and is evaluating the proposal.
However, he said, “We are in a position of having to ensure our rights of way are being used to maximize our ability to handle the explosive growth and demand for rail service.”
That is not the only hurdle. Mr. Blunt and Mr. Nixon — a Democrat and a presumed opponent to Mr. Blunt in the 2008 governor’s race — are at odds over a lawsuit Mr. Nixon filed last year against the DNR over a decaying Union Pacific bridge over the Missouri River in Boonville.
Union Pacific wants to dismantle the bridge and reuse part of its steel elsewhere. Mr. Nixon and some trail supporters fear that dismantling it could jeopardize the federal agreement on which the entire Katy Trail rests. The case remains under appeal after a county judge ruled against the attorney general. The same judge recently dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by trail advocates.