Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Development hits the rails

By CLINTON DICK and By DOUG CARDER, Herald Staff Writers | 1/17/2014

Once completed, the Flint Hills Nature Trail will be the seventh longest trail converted from defunct U.S. railway tracks — according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C. — and it runs right through Ottawa.

Much work remains on the trail, which stretches 117 miles east to west from Osawatomie to Herrington, Doug Walker, Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy vice president, said. Roughly half of the Flint Hills Nature Trail is open, and some of the major work yet to be done rests in Franklin County, he said.

Once completed, the Flint Hills Nature Trail will be the seventh longest trail converted from defunct U.S. railway tracks — according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C. — and it runs right through Ottawa.

Much work remains on the trail, which stretches 117 miles east to west from Osawatomie to Herrington, Doug Walker, Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy vice president, said. Roughly half of the Flint Hills Nature Trail is open, and some of the major work yet to be done rests in Franklin County, he said.

“East of Ottawa to Osawatomie is pretty much done,” Walker said. “We have some bridges to rail and some minor work to do. People are on that daily. West of Ottawa to Pomona, we have some problems because we have to cross the Burlington Northern [Sante Fe Railroad] tracks. And if you’ve ever dealt with railroads, they are very difficult to deal with. It is usually their way or the highway.

“We also have to cross [K-268] highway,” Walker said. “Up to this point, the railroad hasn’t really wanted to deal with us crossing.”

The trail breaches Ottawa city limits from the east, near Seventh and Mason streets, and runs south of the Marais des Cygnes River levee, intersecting the Prairie Spirit Trail — a rail trail which runs north and south through Ottawa one block west of Main Street, at First and Walnut streets.

Walker, as well as Linda Craghead, assistant secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, are confident progress on the trail, which is open to walkers, bicyclists and horses, will continue in 2014.

An engineering survey team has been on the trail throughout the week, starting at Herrington and moving east to Osawatomie, Walker and Craghead said. The survey is to check the condition of the trail, as well as to form a plan for where funds from $2.4 million in grants for the trail will be used.

The grant funds came from both a Kansas Department of Transportation grant and a federal grant administered by the state, Walker said. He and Craghead said they are confident the trail will see more development with the state’s assistance.

“What they are doing is working with the engineering firm to help provide some options and ensuring we have ongoing communication with the Kansas Department of Transportation and the rail line,” Craghead said. “We want to make sure that they understand where we are headed and figure out as a team what the best answer is.

“We have advised the engineering firm that we definitely want this done as quickly as possible,” Craghead said. “We see it is a huge opportunity for the state, for [Ottawa] and for all of the communities that lie along the trail. When you look at the economic impact that the Katy Trail has had in Missouri, we see this as a real diamond for the state of Kansas and for [Ottawa].”

TRACKING DOWN FUNDS

Walker, a former state senator from Osawatomie from 1988 to 1996, said he hopes to pursue more grants for developing the trail.

“[The survey team was surveying] the condition of the trail this past week, noting bridges that need fixed and railing that needs done, and they are going to assign a cost on those items and when they are done, we are going to see how much money we have left,” he said. “Then the trail will be completed up to those standards.

“After that, we will go after other grants to finish the sections that didn’t get finished,” Walker said. “There are more grants out there to build trails than there are to maintain trails. The state will have a lot to say in where we actually spend the money.”

Another challenge for the completion of the trail is what happens inside the city limits of each town it goes through, which includes Ottawa, Pomona, Osage City, Osawatomie, Council Grove, Hemlick, Wilsey, Delevan and Herrington. In the past, the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy has not constructed trails inside city limits because it is an all-volunteer organization and the trails that have been built and maintained have been done so by volunteers, Walker said.

“Our trail has gaps in it,” he said. “Since we are a volunteer agency, we build trails where we have volunteers, and there are gaps where we don’t have volunteers.

“We were confident that we could not maintain the trail inside city limits to city standards. We’ve talked to the cities to see if they will maintain it once it is done and we might lease it to them or give it to them,” Walker said. “Cities may want some amenities like asphalt, lights, parking and the trail mowed every two weeks.”

OTTAWA’S TRAIL IMPROVEMENTS

City of Ottawa officials made upgrading a portion of the Flint Hills Nature Trail in Ottawa a priority last fall.

The city obtained a $20,425 grant through the Topeka-based Sunflower Foundation to extend and improve the trail along First Street, from Walnut Street to Willow Street.

The improvement project included construction of a 1,200-foot long, 8-foot wide crushed rock trail section to connect the Flint Hills Nature Trail with the Prairie Spirit Trail, which follows the same path as the former Missouri Pacific Railway.

Improved lighting and signage were part of the upgrades, Wynndee Lee, the city’s director of planning and codes, said.

The project was completed — with city crews supplying the labor and the Sunflower grant helping to purchase the materials — in December, and a sign recently was erected at First and Walnut streets to note the work, Lee said. The materials, not counting labor and other expenses, cost about $12,700 for the project, according to city estimates.

The much longer eastern leg of the trail through Ottawa is in need of improvements, Lee said. And city officials would like to do more to marry the Flint Hills and Prairie Spirit trails in the community.

Each city that the trail passes through is important, especially Ottawa, Walker said.

“We would like to connect the cities,” he said. “We are talking to the cities since we have had this grant. We would like to see some of the funding go toward finishing the trail through Ottawa because Ottawa is a perfect trail town. Ottawa is kind of at the center of a real trail network.”

City of Ottawa officials are hopeful the conservancy will use some of its state and federal funds to improve the remaining portion of the Flint Hills trail within the Ottawa city limits. About 6,150 feet of the Flint Hills trail in Ottawa, from First and Hickory streets to the point it leaves the city east of Seventh Street, still needs improvement, city officials said.

“The City of Ottawa would very much like to see the Flint Hills Nature Trail completed within the city limits, particularly as we have installed a section with Sunflower Grant funding and city labor west of Walnut,” Richard Nienstedt, city manager, said. “It is important to us all that the Flint Hills Nature Trail and the Prairie Spirit Trail connect, creating more opportunities for citizens and visitors alike.”

The trail’s economic impact on Ottawa will be determined by how Ottawans use the trail, Craghead said.

“A lot of that depends on Ottawa and the communities and if they choose to embrace it,” she said. “One of the things that could easily be done is the development of bed and breakfasts along the way. That is something people would use. All in all, it will become that which the communities want it. Hopefully the people in the communities will embrace the opportunities.”

The Franklin County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau already is embracing the trails as a big attraction in Franklin County. The cover of this year’s Franklin County visitor’s guide features photos of the Flint Hills Nature Trail, Prairie Spirit Trail and Kanza Park, 200 W. 13th St., Ottawa, with the slogan, “Hit the trails ... with us!”

Kristi Lee, Franklin County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau director, said she already has seen interest in the Flint Hills Nature Trail.

“We have a lot of people come in and ask for information on it, and we have a lot of information we give out to people,” she said. “I definitely look for it to grow our tourism.”

The Flint Hills Nature Trail also is a part of the American Discovery Trail, which is a trail that runs coast-to-coast across the U.S. from Delaware to California. Being a part of that trail system also might bring the opportunity for people coming in from across the country, Walker said.

“It is a part of [the American Discovery Trail], it is just not done,” he said.

For now, the trail area west of Ottawa to Pomona is still rough to travel on, Craghead said, but grant funds may be used to develop that part of the trail in the future.

“That will depend on what the engineering plan indicates,” she said. “We hope to have a meeting on Jan. 24 to get an update. [The engineering firm] has been actively out there evaluating it

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