Category: Rails to Trails

Rails to Trails

In 1916 railroad transportation was at its peak.  At that time, railroads were our main source of transportation.  They hauled food to market, moved coal to heat cities, and carried settlers to the Western frontier. Railroads also helped win World War II.  But, in the 1970’s other modes of transportation–like trucking–took over.  Because of this, many railroads went bankrupt and carriers began abandoning rail lines at an alarming rate.  Because rail corridors have gentle grades and often follow rivers and scenic landscapes, the possibility of creating trails from rail lines for recreation and nonmotorized transportation became an opportunity and a solution.  In 1976, Congress attempted to address the abandonment of rail lines by issuing the Railroad Revitalizaion and Regulatory Reform Act (4-R Act).  This law deferred the disposition of railroad rights-of-way for 180 days to allow for possible transfers for public use, including rails-to-trails conversions.  The biggest challenge came from nearby landowners, many of whom believed that they were entitled to repossess the land when it was abandoned.  In 1983, Section 8(d) of the National Trails System Act attempted to address this issue.  This law allows railroad carriers to free themselves of responsibility for unprofitable rail lines by transferring them (by sale, donation, or lease) to qualified private or public agencies for interim use as trails until they are needed again for rail service.  This process is called “rail-banking.”  An interested trail manager (may be a public agency or qualified organization) can request a railbanking order within 30 days after the railroad files an application for an abandonment. Aggrieviated landowners can file a “takings” claim under the federal Tucker Act.  This requires the government to pay “just compensation” if it “takes” private property for a public use.  But, the Supreme Court explained in the 1990 Preseault case (which challenged the federal railbanking law and resulted in eight reported court decisions in the state and federal courts) that “only some rail-to-trail conversions will amount to taking.”  The law on rails-to-trails conversions is still evolving, particularly in the “takings” litigation, but the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has materials and resources on its website that can help educate and assist in various legal, political, and communication issues that may arise during the course of a rails-to-trails conversion.  

Valentine Appraisal and Associates sample Rails-to-Trails assignments:

  • 80.48 Mile Transportation Corridor in Siskiyou and Shasta Counties, California
  • 2.7 mile Transportation Corridor in Whittier, California


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