City considers acquiring land for bike path expansion

The city of Marshalltown could become the owner of 12 miles of land that hosts a railroad track. The owner, Iowa River Railroad, has decided to discontinue 34 miles along the corridor that runs from Marshalltown to Steamboat Rock. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is looking to acquire the land, including the stretch in Marshall County that runs north of town to Eldora, to transform it into a bike trail.

“We really see this as the next big bike trail in Iowa,” said Andrea Chase, trails coordinator for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

However, in order to purchase the land, the foundation needs a public entity to back the project, assuming responsibility for the land, Chase said. City and county officials, cycling enthusiasts and business leaders turned out Wednesday afternoon to a meeting discussing the project held at the Fisher Community Center.

The foundation wants the city to assume control of the land, maintaining its upkeep for 20 years, Chase said. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation would purchase the land with grant money before turning it over to the city, so acquiring the land would cost the city nothing, but the city would need to pay for its maintenance.

Chase said the foundation has been negotiating with the railroad. And although it originally settled on a $400,000 price tag, that figure only took into account the area north of Liscomb, not the 12 miles in Marshall County.

Hardin County would collaborate with the city in assuming control of the land. The county supervisors there already approved purchasing the property from Liscomb to Steamboat Rock, but Chase said the federal government denied the grant. She said they will reapply, and it was the short notice, not the bike trail’s potential, that doomed the grant.

The foundation is pursuing a $750,000 state grant that would fund the purchase, installation of the trail and maintenance. A government agency needs to control the land since only government agencies are eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency money.

The deadline for submission of grant money is July 1.

Curt Ward, city attorney, said he has trepidation about the city assuming control of the property on such short notice. The city does not have the staff to ensure the contractor that will tear up the tracks will leave the land is a usable condition.

“The owner becomes responsible immediately for any dangerous conditions,” he said. “We have trouble getting an alley’s snow removed, let alone a 12-mile stretch of land.”

Denny Grabenbauer, county supervisor, also said the haste of the project made him nervous.

The foundation has a good working relationship with the contractor, Chase said, but placing stipulations on ownership shouldn’t prove problematic. She said the foundation would also pay any property taxes due on the land and wouldn’t have a problem gathering numbers on the cost of upkeep. Also, as the wheels of grant applications move slowly, Chase said the city has more than a month to back out if the details are not to its liking.

Project phasing and availability of grant money will greatly influence how long the trail’s completion will take, Chase said. The best-case scenario would have the trail functional in five years with a seven-to-10 year timeline more likely. However, the Iowa Water and Land Legacy Amendment, which provides $15 million for such projects, could also help expedite the process.

Representatives from various businesses, including Fisher/Emerson, have already written letters of support, said Joel Greer, second-ward council member. He said he is confident every major employer in town will be on board with building the bike trail.

Many in attendance touted the idea, saying it could provide health benefits to the community while making it more attractive to potential residents.

Randy Wetmore, city administrator, said he would like to see cycling groups or other advocates of the trail shoulder the cost of maintenance. Perhaps a group could create a nonprofit with which the city could enter into an agreement; people might feel more comfortable donating to a nonprofit since they know their money will go toward a specific endeavor, he said.

“If it’s ours, we have to worry about the money,” he said. “I am trying to set this up so it is successful.”

Maintenance would be minimal, and it would entail little more than preventing plant encroachment, Chase said. The exact yearly cost has yet to be determined.

Tom Deimerly, president of Marshall Economic Development Impact Committee, said the city could lease the tillable land to nearby farmers if money for maintenance is unavailable. The city will own the 100 feet on either side of the railroad tracks but only will need roughly 30 feet for the trail.

The Marshalltown City Council will discuss acquiring the land at its Monday meeting.