JEFFERSON CITY • The nation’s longest rail-to-trail bicycle and pedestrian path could become a haven for all-terrain vehicles and golf carts under a proposal being debated in the Missouri Legislature.
Groups representing bike riders and walkers think the proposal would seriously compromise the purpose of the cross-state Katy Trail, but state Rep. Jay Houghton says his plan will benefit older residents and the disabled, who might not otherwise be able to use the 240-mile pathway.
Houghton, R-Martinsburg, wants to allow people 55 and older and people with disabilities to use motorized vehicles on the trail on the first and third Wednesday of each month. He says the off-road vehicles would be limited to a speed of 15 miles per hour.
“That way we’re not stepping on anyone’s toes too much,” Houghton told members of a House committee on Monday.
Rachel Ruhlen, president of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, said the idea defeats the purpose of the Katy Trail, which draws people from around the world and brings $18 million in tourism spending because they can walk or bike in nature without interference from motorized vehicles.
“They use the Katy Trail because it is a pleasant escape from the traffic,” Ruhlen said.
Plus, she said, the trail currently is too narrow to accommodate ATVs and golf carts and would have to be rebuilt.
It is not the first time Houghton has locked horns with bicyclists.
He also is shepherding a bill through the Legislature this year that would require bicyclists to attach an orange flag to their bikes if they want to ride on county roads. He said the fluorescent flag, mounted on a 15-foot pole, would make bikers more visible to motorists.
The biking federation says the flag idea “will not help the safety situation for bicyclists or drivers, will be impossible to enforce and comply with, and is intended as another backhanded way to keep cyclists off the road.”
During last week’s hearing on his Katy Trail idea, however, Houghton’s plan received positive reviews from his colleagues.
Rep. Lyle Rowland, R-Cedarcreek, suggested expanding the limited time period for riders.
“I think you ought to put a weekend in there,” said Rowland, who asked whether it was a double standard for bikers to demand they share the road with cars but not share the trail with motorized vehicles.
Rep. Randy Pietzman, R-Troy, added: “I personally feel we’ve bent over backwards building bike lanes.”
The Department of Natural Resources prohibits motorized equipment on the trail; however, the agency allows electric-powered bikes and tricycles to travel at a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour. Electric-powered mobility devices, such as wheelchairs and scooters, also are allowed.
Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, called it “absurd” that seniors can’t buzz down the trail on ATVs once in a while.
“This should be allowed,” Ross said.
And, Ross added, the state also should consider allowing other means of travel on the former rail bed, which stretches from St. Charles County in the east to Henry County in the west.
“There’s a lot of people who like to ride horses,” Ross said.
Horses already are allowed on portions of the trail, including from the state fairgrounds in Sedalia to the western terminus in Clinton, and on the section between Portland and Tebbetts.
Ruhlen said there are other options for people looking to get outdoors.
For those wanting a place to ride their ATVs on public land, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources offers two state parks with off-road trails. St. Joe State Park is near Park Hills, and Finger Lakes State Park is north of Columbia.
And for those wanting to enjoy the Katy Trail without doing any physical work, Ruhlen said someone could hire a pedicab.
“You could hire someone else to pedal for you,” Ruhlen said.
The proposal could come up for further debate in the House Conservation and Natural Resources Committee as early as Monday.
The legislation is House Bill 2047.
(This story was updated Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016 to correct when vehicles would be allowed on the trail. The legislation calls for ATVs and golf carts to be allowed on the first and third Wednesday of each month.)