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Rock Island Trail moving forward, as are landowner lawsuits

Posted at 6:27 PM, Jan 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-22 20:13:40-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The long-troubled Rock Island Recreational Trail project for hiking and biking is moving forward again following a new federally-approved agreement reached Tuesday.

Last July, the Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) found the county violated the original agreement by ripping up rails already in place and using those rail beds for the trail.

The STB also found Jackson County lied about taking off the rails and later issued a cease and desist order to demand the county stop ongoing construction of the project.

The new agreement gives Jackson County an exemption to move forward with the project without maintaining the now-removed rail line.

In a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon, Jackson County Executive Frank White said, "Today is a great day for advocates of the Rock Island Trail. I would like to thank our partners in this project, most notably Union Pacific Railroad and KCATA (Kansas City Area Transportation Authority). While more work remains, the decision from the STB will allow us to move forward in turning this inactive railroad corridor into an amazing amenity for our community."

Tom Stewart, an attorney representing 12 landowners along the trail, said the newly-approved trail use agreement should've been pursued by the county five years ago.

Stewart has filed two lawsuits on behalf of his landowner clients.

One of them is in state court filed last month against KCATA.

It claims Jackson County had no authority to bring that organization into the project as a partner.

He said the other federal lawsuit, which had been on hold, is now back in motion because of the new agreement.

Stewart said he'll be pursuing both part-time and full-time compensation for his clients for their land taken for the project.

Jackson County bought the 17.7-mile stretch of land for the recreational trails from the Union Pacific Railroad in May 2016 using $52 million in bonds the county is still re-paying.

Stewart said that purchase was completely unnecessary and should be very concerning to Jackson County taxpayers.

"We have not understood from the very beginning why they developed this scheme, why they didn't follow existing procedures and why they would pay over $50 million for an asset they basically could've had for free or close to it if they had actually followed the law in the first place," Stewart said.

Jackson County officially opened the southern portion of the recreational trail in June 2019.

When the northern section is completed, the trail will run from Lee's Summit to the Truman Sports Complex.

According to Jackson County, the county still needs to enter into a further agreement with Union Pacific Railroad to allow the construction to move forward.

A county spokeswoman said the county is following the STB's recommendations and noted the STB's concerns with the project began with decisions made in a previous county administration.