Rock Island Trail: What happened in Jefferson City this legislative session – What was lost, what was gained, what’s next?

If you have followed Rock Island Trail news in Missouri, you know that the new Rock Island Trail State Park has run into very significant headwinds in the Missouri legislature in 2022 and 2023. Governor Parson and Missouri State Parks officials sign the agreement to accept the Rock Island corridor into the Missouri State Parks system, December 2021.
In 2023, Governor Parson asked for $69 million funding – which passed the Missouri House with east but was stripped in Missouri Senate, due to opposition from a couple of key Senate budget leaders. 
Earlier in 2023, we and a number of allied organizations issued an alert that $2.9 million in federal economic development funding that Governor Parson had earmarked for the trail would be lost forever unless the Senate chair reversed his position and allowed the funding to move forward.
So what happened and why is there suddenly such strong opposition to the Rock Island Trail in the Missouri legislature?
The good news: Opposition from a few wealthy, powerful individuals is unfortunate, but having little long-term affect on Rock Island Trail plans and development
The good news is, the Rock Island Trail corridor is still owned by State Parks and that will not be changing any time soon. 
The dynamic that is going on right now is that a few very wealthy and influential property owners along the corridor are throwing their weight around by giving significant contributions to key budget leaders and hiring lobbyists to throw a monkey wrench into progress for the trail whenever they can.
And the Missouri Farm Bureau – which earlier on opposed the trail but was keeping a low profile about it – has gained new leadership that has recently become far more active in their opposition to the trail.
But despite the trouble these individuals and organizations can cause, it is worth remembering that:

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The Rock Island corridor has, after an extensive and open public process, already been accepted as part of the Missouri State Parks system. 
In public meetings and calls for public feedback leading up to State Parks acceptance of the Rock Island corridor, greater than 95% of public responses supported the new State Park. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this overwhelming public support of this project, including in communities along the corridor.  Projects like this simply do not ever see such overwhelmingly positive public response.  And the disparity between the public response to the project and the legislative roadblocks being thrown up now, serves to underline the fact that it is a very, very few wealthy and powerful people who are opposing the trail and will of the vast majority of citizens who live in the area. Marianne Fowler of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy with a copy of the first letter in their files regarding the Rock Island Trail – a letter from an Eldon, Missouri, resident dated 1986. (Click for a close-up view of the letter.)  
Missouri State Parks now owns the corridor and there is no way open for trail opponents to reverse that decision. 
Trail opponents have caused us to lose significant funding opportunities, to the detriment of Rock Island communities and the state as a whole. However, plans for Rock Island Trail development did not depend on these unexpected funding opportunities, which came about only because of federal funding increases during the Covid pandemic.  In the absence of that funding, trail development will proceed just as was planned in the past – by gradual development of the corridor through grants, local funding, and support from cities, counties, individuals, organizations, and businesses along the corridor. 
Already four Rock Island Trail communities have received grants to develop portions of the trail in and near their communities.  Work on these projects – in Owensville, Belle, Eldon, and Versailles – is slated to start this year.

Positive action on the Rock Island Trail this legislative session
The opposition to Rock Island Trail funding this legislative session – headlined by the refusal of the Senate Appropriations Chair to include major RIT budget items – has received a lot of attention the past two years.  But let us not forget that, despite that, there has been some significant progress in funding and in support for the trail in the Missouri legislature this year:

Representative Bruce Sassman of Bland offered an amendment on the House floor directing a $5 million investment in the Rock Island  Trail. That amendment passed the full House on a floor vote – not an easy thing to do. 
Governor Parson and the Department of Natural Resources requested appropriation of a $2.9 million federal economic development grant for use in developing the Rock Island Trail. Though this is a federal grant, it still cannot be spent unless appropriated through the regular Missouri legislative process.  Like the $5 million funding proposal, this received strong support and easily passed both the House Budget committee and the vote of the full House. 
About $1.1 million in funding – from private funders who donated to the Rock Island Trail Endowment Fund, was approved by both chambers this year. Another $160,000 left over from previous years’ stimulus funding was also approved.  See HB 6 p. 31. Last year this funding encountered opposition from key senators on the Senate Appropriations Committee, but was finally approved.  This year, the funding was approved again.

And what went wrong
Despite the support the Rock Island Trail did see this legislative session, in the end only the $1 million funding from private sources to support trail staffing and operations was proposed. The red portion of this map is the new Rock Island Trail State Park. The blue portion is the 47 miles owned Missouri State Parks and already open to the public. The orange portion is the Jackson County Rock Island Trail – also open to the public..
So what went wrong with the other proposals?
The short and simple answer is: Senate Appropriations Chair Lincoln Hough of Springfield.
In the Senate, extreme deference is given to the Senate Appropriations Chair in setting the state’s annual budget.  That is a long-standing tradition in the Senate.  And since the Senate tends to hold the balance of power in the legislative process, what the Senate Appropriations Chair says, usually goes.
Both in 2022 and 2023, Senator Lincoln Hough of Springfield has been the key opponent of Rock Island Trail funding.  In 2022, Hough was vice-chair of the Appropriations Committee and had the ear of the committee chair.  In 2023, Hough was named chair of the committee, where is voice is even stronger.
Hough is personal friends with members of the key family who opposes development of Rock Island Trail State Park, and members of the family have made campaign contributions to Hough’s campaign committee. If you search the July 15, 2022 “Friends Of Lincoln Hough campaign committee contributions report (local copy), it is pretty clear exactly who the family is.
MoBikeFed has been involved in Missouri state politics for nearly three decades now.  But in that time, we have never yet witnessed such a blatantly naked exercise of power – where one politician, motivated by friendship and/or political donations from one specific family – can override the will of the people, of other elected officials, and of the welfare of a large swath of communities across Missouri.
Exactly what Rock Island Trail funding did the Senate Appropriations Chair reject this legislative session?
What was lost this session due to the opposition of Senate Appropriations Chair Hough?

Governor Parson’s budget included $69 million out of Missouri’s federal ARPA funding for the Rock Island Trail in 2022.  However, in 2022 the Governor’s Budget did not include a similar ARPA funding proposal.  The simple reason is, that the Governor and his staff knew the funding would be opposed by Senator Hough and thus was DOA. 
The $5 million limited Rock Island Trail appropriation proposed by Represenative Sassman and approved on the floor of the House, was rejected by the Senate Appropriations Committee. In 2014, representatives of MoBikeFed and Friends of the Missouri Rock Island Trail (MoRIT) met with Ameren to deliver over 12,500 petition signatures – signed by people like you from all around Missouri, the U.S., and the world – in support of the Rock Island Trail. This was a key turning point in the history of the trail, as soon thereafter Ameren and Missouri State Parks began serious negotiations aimed at transferring the corridor to State Parks  
The $2.9 million federal grant for the Rock Island Trail, approved by Governor Parson, the Missouri Department of Economic Development, and the Missouri House, was rejected by the Senate Appropriations Committee. 
The final budget included this (odd) restrictive statement:

No funds shall be used for the maintenance, rehabilitation, restoration, and repair of the Missouri Rock Island Trail Corridor that runs from Windsor to Beaufort, Missouri on private land in which the trail runs through or outside of any city, town, or village limits. (HB 6, p. 39)

What is odd about the statement is that none of the Rock Island corridor is private land.  Many things can be the subject of disagreement – but not this basic fact.  Hundreds of landowners who own land adjacent to the corridor have recently received a federal court settlement reimbursing them for the loss of the land.
If the land were still in private hands, no reimbursement would be possible.
As a recent news report on the reimbursement process summarizes:

amendments made to the National Trails System Act in 1983 make it possible for the state to take the land by imminent domain for use as a trail. A federal judge on Sept. 28 ruled that the landowners must be compensated for the land.

Like it or not, by federal law Missouri State Parks now owns this corridor.  Adjoining landowners will soon have some millions of dollars in their pockets to prove it. The Missouri legislature pretending that the land is somehow still “private” does not change anything or help the landowners.
What you can do to help
The number one thing you can do to help is to contact your own Missouri State Senator and State Representative and let them know that you strongly support the Rock Island Trail and funding for the trail.
You can also let them know how disappointed you are that the legislature has missed significant funding opportunities for the trail over the past two years.

You can also contact Senate Appropriations Chair Lincoln Hough and let him know that you are disappointed in his priorities on Rock Island Trail funding.  Senate Appropriations Chair is an office of statewide importantance, so it is very appropriate for anyone across Missouri affected by these budget decisions to contact Senator Hough.
You can send Senator Hough a similar message to the one you send your own legislators.  However, please be especially careful when you contact Senator Hough to be polite and persuasive, not angry or abusive.  Polite and persuasive helps the most. Senator Lincoln Hough, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair. Hough was elected to the Missouri Senate in 2018 and re-elected in 2022. He was vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2022 and named as chair of the Committee in 2023. Hough has three years remaining until he is termed out – and could easily remain as Appropriations Chair for the entire three years.
More Rock Island Trail information

One of the top goals of MoBikeFed’s Vision for Bicycling and Walking in Missouri is building a world-class bicycle and pedestrian transportation system in Missouri.  The addition of the Rock Island Trail to Missouri’s statewide trail system is the biggest single advance we have seen in Missouri in over 20 years.
Your membership and generous financial contributions help turn our Vision into reality–building the statewide public support for bicycling, walking, and trails that make major advances like the Rock Island Trail possible.

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