The Union Pacific Railroad has agreed to sell Jackson County a 15-mile section of track running through Lee’s Summit, preserving the corridor for a biking trail or commuter rail.
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders announced Feb. 24 that the county has an agreement to buy the track of the defunct Rock Island Railroad and two smaller spurs for $59.9 million.
“These are significant rail corridors and significant step for trails and rail,” Sanders said. “Today commuter rail becomes a possibility for the citizens of Jackson County.”
The county only has to figure out how to pay for it. The hope is for federal and state grants to cover the purchase.
For Lee’s Summit, long term, it means an opportunity for a commuter hub at Interstate 470 and View High Drive and a major link to the Little Blue Trace Trail being built by the county.
If a trail along the Rock Island line is built it becomes a Kansas City connection to Missouri’s Katy Trail State Park, going through Lee’s Summit.
The Rock Island Corridor runs from the Truman Sports Complex to Pleasant Hill.
A bicyclist eventually could pedal from Brookside in Kansas City to St. Louis on the trail network, Sanders said.
Sanders said he has been working the leaders of other Jackson County cities and the legislature on plans for commuter rail and bike trails.
Lee’s Summit Mayor Randy Rhoads said the immediate benefit for his town is that local communities would have control of the corridor.
He said for years Lee’s Summit residents in close proximity to the Rock Island line had fear it could reactivate for freight trains.
“That puts us in the driver’s seat,” Rhoads said. “All this has been a concern for years, if we can get control of it, it’s a big plus for us. It’s a tremendous step and takes a lot of concern off people’s minds.”
He said he expects it to be many years before commuter rail actually reaches Lee’s Summit, because other legs of that project would serve larger populations first.
City Manager Steve Arbo said the county acquisition also would make it easier for the city to work on solving problems at intersections with the track, for example the Chipman Road tunnel where the city would like to end a bottle neck. Chipman Road squeezes to one lane under a bridge on the track. The Union Pacific has been reluctant to let Lee’s Summit take out the bridge to widen Chipman.
The agreement on a sale price is only the first stage, albeit important.
Sanders didn’t offer any proposals for construction of the trail or rail system. He said the current Memorandum of Understanding preserves the regions opportunity without financial risk.
Under the memo, the county has option to buy the corridors, without paying for the option, an unusual circumstance, Sanders said.
Union Pacific also agreed to owner-finance the sale, at no cost, if that becomes necessary.
Sanders said the company was being generous, not looking for a profit. It was accepting a price about one-third less than the original estimate of $90 million and including more track.
If the federal government and Missouri don’t offer to fund the entire purchase, the cities and county will work on ways to make up any shortfall, Rhoads said.
Rhoads said the cities and county haven’t discussed those details because it was pointless without an agreement for a sale or knowing the price.
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver said he would support the plan for federally funding the purchase.
“Today’s news is an exciting development for the future of transit and trails in Jackson County,” Cleaver said in a statement released Feb. 24. “The ability to move freely and easily throughout our metropolitan area will offer our citizens more opportunity and will increase the economic competitiveness of our region. As the process moves forward, I will work with my partners in the Missouri Congressional Delegation and the Department of Transportation to assist in identifying any available funds to acquire this important community asset.”
Sanders said the railroad also has decided to negotiate the possibility of sharing its tracks on the “Sedalia Sub” for commuter rail, which could lead to access for Independence and other communities where rail tracks run east to west.
Sanders said that was a concession the railroad before had been reluctant to make. It opens the door for an alternative to using Kansas City Southern Railway tracks for commuter rail serving the Interstate 70 corridor.