Will an unused railroad bed gain new life as a recreation trail in southeast South Dakota?
The “Friends of the Tabor to Platte Rail To Trail” organization is seeking to create a 75-mile recreation path between Tabor and Platte on an unused portion of the Napa-Platte rail line. The trail could connect with Yankton and Lewis & Clark Lake trails.
Dr. Jerome Bentz of Platte and Ron Wagner of Tyndall co-chair the Friends organization, with Bob Foley of Tyndall as secretary and Amanda Bechen of Wagner as treasurer.
The Friends consist of 26 members from Charles Mix County, Bon Homme County and the Yankton Sioux Tribe. The membership could expand in the future, including Nebraska entities as well as the Ponca and Santee Sioux tribes.
At first, the trail will focus on the 28 miles of line from Platte to Ravinia that was rail banked in 2007 and meets the rail-to-trail criteria. However, the Friends proposal will provide a regional concept that could eventually include nearly two dozen towns on the line and connect with north-central and northeast Nebraska.
The trail could offer a variety of opportunities, such as biking, hiking, horseback riding and snowmobiling, Wagner said. Visitors can use the trails entire length or use shorter distances and leave the trail to visit local communities and attractions. In that way, the trail would not only boost the quality of life but also provide a more diverse economy.
The Tabor to Platte organization faces an immediate deadline for seeking a federal grant through the Economic Development Administration (EDA) of the U.S. Commerce Department. The grant would target transformational recreational trails.
The District III Planning and Development office in Yankton is working with the rail to trails project. District III believes the project could qualify for up to $2.5 million, which would carry with it a local match, according to the Friends minutes.
Unlike many grants, the EDA grant is based on merit, with funds allocated in the order that projects are received and qualify for funding, Wagner said.
“That’s why we’re pushing so hard right now. We have until January for the deadline, but the money could be gone by then,” he said. “We’re pushing to get our application done by October. The more support we get by then, the better for our application and its chances.”
If awarded, the EDA grant would provide valuable momentum in seeking other funds, Wagner said. The grant would be used for engineering and other initial work, he said.
The Napa-Platte line runs 83 miles from Yankton County through Bon Homme and Charles Mix counties. Currently, only eight miles of the rail line between Napa Junction and Tabor remain in active service, leaving the remaining 75 miles of track for conversion for a “rail to trail” project.
The Friends group was formed earlier this year. The 501©(3) (non-profit) organization is seeking support from congressional delegations, state legislators, county commissioners, towns, tribes and adjacent landowners.
“We’re working to gain support all along the trail, and we’ve also reached out to our friends in Nebraska because we can see the trail linked to them,” Wagner said. “The Mickelson Trail started with its ‘Friends’ organization and we’re trying to do the same thing.”
In addition, Dan and Jean Hunhoff of Yankton — she is a South Dakota state senator — are seeking to expand the trail’s reach. They have worked to include the Tyndall-Tabor segment at the eastern end of the line.
Also, they have noted a possible connection with Lewis & Clark Lake trails in Yankton County. The trail could eventually link with north-central and northeast Nebraska for an interstate multi-use path.
As a state lawmaker and co-chair of the Joint Appropriations Committee, Jean Hunhoff has sought to offer connections for the “Rails To Trails” committee.
“I was initially contacted to assist with understanding who might be key players at the state level for this project,” she said. “This group of individuals had put forth an idea that could potentially create a biking trail beginning in southeast South Dakota and eventually lead to a trail connecting to the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills.”
In that respect, the Tabor-to-Platte trail would provide a key link, Jean said.
“This is an opportunity for tourism, promotion of small town South Dakota, recreation and, most importantly, family fun,” she said.
Dan grew up in Yankton County, while Jean hails from the Tabor area. They see great potential for the rail-to-trail idea, particularly with the momentum and accomplishments in just a few months.
“We attended a few meetings and saw the enthusiasm and, more importantly, the work the group had already undertaken,” Jean said. “Dan took the lead on Tabor involvement, and I worked to get connections and meetings arranged with key players in Pierre.”
The connections would prove critical, not just for any potential funding, Wagner said. The Friends organization has worked with agencies such as the Department of Transportation and the Department of Game, Fish and Parks for their guidance and expertise.
In the meeting minutes, Foley described the legal process that lies ahead.
The Tabor-Platte concept would become a “trail agency” and presented the South Dakota Railroad Board/Authority with its plan to fund and operate a recreational trail on “rail banked” line, he said. In addition, Gov. Kristi Noem must approve a resolution passed by the Rail Board.
A legal agreement identifies performance requirements for trail operation, Foley said. The Railroad Board can cancel the agreement if an alternative economic use for the rail line emerges.
The South Dakota Railroad Board/Authority plans to consider the project at its Sept. 29 meeting in Pierre, according to Program Manager Jack Dokken with the South Dakota Department of Transportation (SDDOT).
As part of the multi-state outreach, Wagner presented the rail-to-trail project at a meeting of the Statewide Tourism and Recreational Water Access and Resource Sustainability (STAR WARS) Special Committee of the Nebraska Legislature.
The hearing, held at Niobrara State Park Lodge, was conducted by a select legislative committee formed to promote development.
To help launch the rail-to-trail effort, the Tyndall Development Corporation pledged $5,000 for general use, according to the Friends minutes. The organization has reached out to other communities to do the same in order to meet initial expenses.
In other cases, the Friends organization is simply seeking a resolution that provides important backing, according to member Janet Wagner.
The response so far has been encouraging, she added.
“All we’re asking now is, are you in favor of the project? We’re not asking for funding; we’re just looking for support,” she said.
As part of its studies, the Friends membership has been divided into four committees: trail design, finance, publicity and government/tribal relations. The four committees can meet separately and then report to the entire membership, which creates great efficiency.
Jean Hunhoff noted resources are there but must be actively pursued.
“Like any big project, there is always need of dollars,” she said. “This group has the responsibility to make the ‘ask’ from the potential resources that exist for funding.”
However, she also sees tremendous potential with the effort.
“This could be the next big thing for southeastern South Dakota,” she said. “We already have a great bike trail from Yankton to Lewis & Clark Lake. There are paved roads that can lead from the lake to Tabor and then get on the trail.”
The project could become a win-win for the entire region and state, Hunhoff added.
“We all benefit in this endeavor to capitalize on our resources to create a fantastic bike trail across the state,” she said.
The rail-to-trail effort has made tremendous progress in a few months, Wagner said.
“We’ve gone from nothing to a 501©(3) and have gotten support from the state,” she said. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The Tabor-Platte members will next meet 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Geddes brewery, and the public is welcome to attend.
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.