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Proposed rail abandonment spurs prospects for rec trail

Published: Thursday, April 24, 2014 11:44 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, April 24, 2014 11:59 a.m. CDT

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It’s a grand vision, interconnecting all of central Iowa by a recreational bike trail system. 

Former U.S. Rep. Neal Smith, whose namesake wildlife refuge is located south of Prairie City, envisioned a trail system extending from Pella to Fort Madison. But he knew it would take small steps to get there.

Last month, another one of those small steps began to look possible. March 5, the Iowa Interstate Railroad filed a memo with the federal Surface Transportation Board stating it plans to abandon the rail corridor extending from Highway F62 W southeast of Prairie City through Jasper County to Highway S27 near Mitchellville.

This 10.75-mile stretch, dubbed by IAIS as the “Prairie City Segment,” is part of a larger vision to connect Marion, Jasper and Polk counties with a paved recreational trail system. If abandoned as proposed, county and local leaders could begin the process of designating it a greenway, Prairie City City Administrator Manny Toribio said.

“For many years there has been discussion as to what would happen if that rail line ever was abandoned and we had the opportunity to put in a trail,” he said. “We’ve thought that a multi-use trail would be good for the visibility of our community.”

According to its memo, the IAIS expects to file its official petition for abandonment by the end of April.

In August, Toribio held an initial Steering Committee meeting to begin preliminary plans on the “Rails to Trails” process. Leaders in the business community, along with county conservation and city officials, attended the meeting.

Andrea Chase is the trails coordinator for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. Her organization is involved in the petitioning and research that goes into turning a rail corridor into a recreational trail.

After a railway is discontinued by the a railroad company, the INHF also can petition the transportation board to preserve the rail path with “rail banking.” Chase explained that once a discontinued segment is banked, it’s reserved solely for transportation use. 

If the corridor is simply abandoned, any land leased or acquired through condemnation by a rail company would go back to its original deedholder. In many cases, this can require research going back more than a century.

Rail banking the system will allow local jurisdictions the opportunity to use it for alternative transportation purposes, such as walking or biking. It also allows the railroad company the option to reopen that track in the future if it ever deems it necessary. 

But Chase stressed that rail re-institution has never happened in Iowa due to rail banking.

Chase said the INHF will assist city leaders with their experience in the rail-banking process. But she also stressed it is a local effort and her organization is there to “make sure they hit all the marks along the way.”

“I’ve worked at the foundation for eight years now, and ever since I came on board the city administrators and community leaders have been asking me when (this segment) was going to be abandoned,” Chase said. “I feel like this has been a long time coming. The communities have been wanting it for so long.”

Jasper County Conservation Director Kari Van Zante has also been working on the proposed project.

“I’ve been sending letters to the railroad for years,” she said. “I always was turned down every time until last May. They’ve finally changed their mind.”

Of course, the ultimate goal is connect the trail system to Altoona, and eventually the Des Moines metro area. In conjunction with work on the Steering Committee, Toribio has been in discussion with the Marion and Polk county conservation directors to eventually connect Diamond Head Trail through the Prairie City Segment to Mitchellville and leading to Altoona.

The segment of track between Mitchellville and Altoona is still considered active by the IAIS, Chase said. But the leaders hope this will one day change.

Another hurdle is funding. Toribio said state and federal grants potentially could assist in the construction of the proposed trail, but many times a county-level match of funds is required. Since the planning is in the early stages, he said he has yet to discuss the proposed trail with the Jasper County Board of Supervisors.

Toribio acknowledged the county’s other funding commitments such as the recent action of resurfacing trails near Baxter. The board would have to take into account future maintenance costs on the new trail. But those associated in the planning said trails like this bring with them economic incentives.

The 25-mile “High Trestle” recreational trail extends from it’s southern most point in Ankeny through Slater, Madrid and Woodward. The project took community leaders eight years to complete from concept to final touches. Chase said this is “lightening speed” for a project of that size.

But Chase gave examples of economic development associated with the trail completion. A cafe in Woodward doubled its staff after the Trestle Trail began to pick up traffic, and a bed and breakfast and a bike shop opened in Slater.

“Looking at the end product of the High Trestle Trail, it brings an attraction and a quality of life benefit to these small rural towns,” she said.

There can be lengthy timelines in trail projects. Chase said the average length of time for a project this size is roughly eight years from start to finish, but she said it depends on funding, as well as community enthusiasm and support.

“You always have to have a plan in case it could happen,” Toribio said. “And that’s what everyone is trying to do; take small steps and get to the big end.”

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