Jackson County officials and others say the purchase of unused railroad tracks -- a process that has taken years -- will help transform the way the metro area’s public transit system develops. The immediate plan is for a bike trail, but officials hope someday to run commuter rail service through the same corridor.

“I am a very, very strong advocate of that project – that development – and it can’t happen fast enough for me,” Steve Klika, chairman of the Kansas City Area Transit Authority and vice chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, told Jackson County legislators Monday.

The County Legislature on Monday approved $52 million in bonds to buy 17.7 miles of tracks from the Union Pacific Railroad. The old Rock Island tracks, unused for 35 years, run from near Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums southeast through Raytown to the Longview area of Lee’s Summit.

The bonds, at an average interest rate of 3.75 percent, are to paid off over 30 years at $2.875 million annually – half by the county and half by the ATA.

“Having that partnership with KC ATA is huge,” said County Executive Frank White Jr.

Officials hope to issue the bonds by the end of the month and have talked about a big public kickoff event in early May. Officials have not said when bicyclists and hikers could be enjoying the trail but have said in the past that it could take a couple years. The county has $10 million in federal money in hand to cover all or most of the construction.

“It’s great to see this day happening,” said Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Foundation.

He said connecting the Katy Trail to Kansas City has been the group’s top priority for years. That trail, which runs east-west across most of the state, is being pushed north from Windsor to Pleasant Hill, and the new Jackson County trail would come out within a few miles of that Pleasant Hill trailhead.

There’s more: The popular Little Blue Trace Trail runs up the Little Blue River valley from Blue Mills Road to Lee’s Summit Road just south of Independence, and it’s being extended farther south. Some day, officials say, that trail would run to the Interstate 470/View High Drive area in Lee’s Summit – where Rock Island tracks also pass. So rider on either county trail would be able to roll on and pick up the Katy, which runs to the St. Louis area.

Hugh said that’s important for Missouri tourism.

“The longer the trail, the farther people will travel to visit it,” he said.

Bike advocates also say, based on trails elsewhere in the country, the new trail on the old Rock Island tracks will attract hundreds of millions of dollars within half a mile of that corridor.

“We are excited for the health, mobility and economic benefits that this project will bring,” said Eric Rogers, founder and executive director of BikeWalkKC.


Commuter service

Still, officials for years have had their eye on commuter rail service, and they underlined Monday that’s still the ultimate goal. Mike Sanders, county executive at the time, rolled out a commuter rail plan in 2009 that included the Rock Island tracks as one of six spokes run out from Kansas City.

“This seven-year journey to try to enhance transit options in Jackson County has led us here today,” Calvin Williford, chief of staff to the county executive, told county legislators Monday.

At one point, the Rock Island corridor and one running through Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley were to have been the first two lines, and they would have connected with the Kansas City streetcar – which opens next month – to get people to and from the area’s highest concentration of jobs, downtown Kansas City.

Sanders and his team had to shift plans and strategies a few times, and just getting the deal with the Union Pacific took years. Still, Tom Gerund, director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, said the county’s purchase of the Rock Island corridors presents “one of the best opportunities for regional connectivity.”

The ATA is becoming a larger player in that, too, and in the economic development that transit is expected to bring. It has brought Independence and Johnson County into its operations network. It’s hired people such as Robbie Makinen, who was Sanders’ director of economic development, as president and CEO, and it recently hired away Blue Springs Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Brien Starner.

Williford has stayed on as White’s chief of staff, and on Monday his old boss, Sanders, praised him for pressing on with a wider vision for transit for several years. Sanders generally tried to deflect attention from himself but did say – as he did constantly in the years he was county executive and promoting the plan – that the county was making a generational investment.

Legislator Dennis Waits, D-Independence, said many people deserve credit for things having come this far, but he also singled out Sanders.

“He worked on this,” Waits said. “He brought people together. He led the way.”