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Plan for building Rock Island Trail stumbles as funding is slashed

Opponents of a new cross-state recreation trail along the old Rock Island Railroad corridor have the upper hand in the Missouri Legislature after the state Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday cut the funds needed to develop it for use.

The committee approved four spending bills for the coming year to pay for new construction, repair of state facilities and using $2.8 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. Gov. Mike Parson, in a budget proposal approved by the Missouri House, dedicated $69.2 million in federal relief funds to develop the 144-mile railroad corridor given to the state last year by Ameren Missouri.

“I am opposed because of the hundreds of millions of dollars that we have in deferred maintenance around the state on all the other state parks,” appropriations Vice Chairman Lincoln Hough, R-Springrfield, said after the committee vote. “I would like to see us invest in the structures and infrastructures we have in those facilities around the state before we go out and build a $100-plus million trail.”

The bills approved Monday include more than $110 million for other state parks needs, including $57.6 million for general maintenance and repair projects and $40.9 million for water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades.

Trail proponents have lobbied for years for the state to acquire the rail corridor that runs through south-central Missouri from Beaufort in Franklin County to Windsor in Henry County. Supporters see it as a complement to the Katy Trail State Park, opened to the public about 30 years ago, and a chance to conserve structures such as tunnels and bridges that date to the early 20th century.

“I am terribly disappointed,” said Greg Harris, retired executive director and current board member of Rock Island Trail Inc.

Supporters haven’t given up hope, he said, since the funding is in the House version of the budget. Lawmakers have until Friday to reconcile differences between the chambers, he noted.

“It really is up to the House and Senate conference committee, to come up with an agreement between $69 million and zero,” Harris said.

But before the bill approved in the Senate committee can get to a conference committee, it must be approved on the Senate floor. 

In all, lawmakers have 19 spending bills totaling nearly $50 billion to be completed by Friday. Of that number, 14 have passed both chambers and are set for conference committee work as early as Tuesday morning.

The four bills sent to the Senate floor Monday by the appropriations committee spend a total of $3.8 billion. The biggest differences with the House are in the bill spending funds from the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021.

Along with the Rock Island Trail funding, the Senate committee cut $50 million added by the House for capital improvements at river ports, $20 million recommended for building cell towers on public land and $88 million for a new Missouri State Highway Patrol academy.

The committee restored $200 million for broadband development to make the total the $300 million sought by Parson. It also added $25 million to a plan for industrial site development that was $50 million in the House version and that Parson pegged at $25 million.

The committee also added 69 construction projects with a total cost of about $210 million that were not recommended by Parson or included by the House. The projects range from $50,000 for improvements on main streets in the Dutchtown neighborhood of St. Louis to $31.5 million for expansion of the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Missouri.

The bill with COVID relief funds has something for every senator who asked for help with a local project, appropriations committee Chairman Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, said.

“I think every Senator has something in this that should please them,” Hegeman said.

This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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