County making progress on bike trail

By Jeff Fox

Jackson County has settled litigation that could have hampered development of the Rock Island Trail in Eastern Jackson County. About half of that trail is open, and the rest is expected to open early in 2021.

The County Legislature voted Oct. 26 to pay $150,000 to settle lawsuits filed over the trail. The Kansas City Area Transit Authority, a partner with the county in developing the trail, is paying $75,000 on top of that. The county also has hired outside attorneys in the case.

Meanwhile, work on the trail has continued.

“It’ll be completed in early 2021. We’ll probably have a grand opening in early spring,” said Matt Davis, Rock Island program manager for Jackson County Parks + Rec.

In 2016, the county bought 17.7 miles of old Rock Island track from the Union Pacific for $52 million, with the ATA picking up half of that cost. That track, unused since the early 1980s, runs from near Arrowhead Stadium southeast through Raytown, Kansas City and Lee’s Summit. 

The nearby landowners who sued claimed the county’s easement on the rail corridor is only for operating a railroad. The county also had to get final federal clearance – and work on the trail was briefly suspended at one point at about a year ago – with the county’s assurance that the corridor was being maintained in such a way that it could be returned to rail service should that need ever arise.

The southern end of the trail is at Jefferson Street just south Scherer Road in south Lee’s Summit. From there it runs northwest up to Brickyard Road south of Knobtown. That 6.4-mile stretch opened in 2019. 

The second part runs northwest to the stadiums. Parts are functionally complete but not officially open, and Davis acknowledged that it’s a struggle – despite signs, pleas on social media and even park rangers – to keep eager riders off that part right now.

“People are just so excited about it,” Davis said.

One side note: The tree on the overpass over Missouri 350 at Knobtown – a “Charlie Brown-looking Christmas tree,” County Legislator Tony Miller called it – has been spared. The contractor dug it up, and Raytown Mayor Mike McDonough gave it a new home.

Davis said it was his understanding that McDonough plugged in the lights – and they worked.

“I didn’t realize it was so important to the community,” Davis said, “but I’m glad that somebody took care of it.” 

Possibilities down the trail

County officials have said the completed trail will create many options. From the stadiums there could be connections to the zoo, the Plaza and other places, they have said. The southern end is not far – seven to 12 miles depending on the route – from the Pleasant Hill end of another trail that opened four years ago.

That trail – a state trail also named the Rock Island Trail – runs south for 47 miles to a connection with the Katy Trail. County officials have long said tying into that statewide trail, creating a bike connection from Kansas City to St. Louis, is a long-term goal.

It was former County Executive Mike Sanders who negotiated to buy the old Rock Island tracks from the Union Pacific. He wanted them as part of a metrowide commuter rail system that would have had two lines to Eastern Jackson County. Officials said at the time the Rock Island corridor was wide enough for both commuter rail traffic and, safety off to one side, walkers and bicyclists.

But Sanders resigned in early 2016, a few months before the purchase from the UP was made final, and no county officials since Sanders have made commuter rail a priority.