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Move over, Casey Jones.

As railroad companies consolidate, states are using the rails-to-trails program to convert abandoned tracks into scenic recreational corridors open to bikers, hikers and horseback riders.

The ghost of engineer Casey Jones may need to take equestrian lessons to continue riding his historic rail lines. As railroad companies consolidate, hundreds of miles of lines across the country are opening up for alternative uses. In a program known as "rails-to-trails," the scenic railway corridors once traveled solely by iron horses are now being used by bikers, hikers and horseback riders. Rails-to-trails has turned more than 8,000 miles of unused railroad tracks into public recreation trails.

Congress passed a federal law in 1983 allowing corridors to be converted to trails after abandonment of the line or "railbanking." A rail corridor is considered "abandoned" when service is discontinued with the approval of the Department of Transportation's Surface Transportation Board (formerly the Interstate Commerce Commission). Railbanking is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a park agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until such time as the railroad might need the corridor for service again.

Many states have found that these recreational railway conversions bring economic opportunities. Small businesses along the 33-mile Elroy-Sparta Trail near Kendall, Wisc., have profited by providing services to the trail's 50,000 annual visitors.

Trail projects on abandoned lines can be controversial because the land often has many owners. During construction of the original lines, railroad companies typically owned only portions of the land; the remainder was leased from adjacent property owners or the federal government. Under the lease agreements, corridors are scheduled to revert to original landowners following abandonment. Disputes can occur over lines that are "banked" before they are abandoned. A disagreement over abandoned railroad property rights in Vermont brought the U.S. Supreme Court into the debate. In 1990, the Court upheld the constitutionality of "banking" railroad corridors as potentially preserving valuable national assets (Preseault vs. ICC, 494 U.S. 1). The Court noted, however, that property owners may be entitled to compensation from the federal government for the loss of the land.

Fear of litter and vandalism can make owners apprehensive about giving the public recreational access to their lands. However, a study of the Seattle, Wash., Burke-Gilman Trail found there was no increase in burglaries and vandalism to houses immediately adjacent to the trail. Landowners also are concerned about issues such as livestock gates left open, according to the National Cattleman's Beef Association, and liability issues arising from injuries that can occur to trail users while on private property.

The bulk of funding for rails-to-trails conversions is provided by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). ISTEA set aside $3.3 billion for 10 specific nonhighway projects including the preservation of abandoned railway corridors and their conversion to pedestrian and bicycle trails. A. second source of funding comes from the Department of Transportation, which administers the $30 million annual budget of the Recreational Trails Trust Fund.

Several states have enacted legislation to make rails-to-trails conversions easier. Maryland law states that preserving abandoned rail corridors as recreational trails is in the public interest and acquiring abandoned lines is needed to preserve this source of recreation.

Colorado recognizes the recreational value of rails-to-trails. But state laws specify that full consideration must be given by local entities to minimizing the adverse effects of the trails upon adjacent landowners or users. Multiple use plans are required for each trail area to ensure a balance between recreation and landowners' rights. If land cannot be obtained through donations, easements or exchanges, the division of wildlife can authorize expenditure of state money for the parcels. Since the merger of Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Corporation, more than 300 miles of Colorado track are being reviewed for abandonment. Because many of these lines are scattered among the tourism-dependent mountain communities, the Colorado Transportation Legislation Review Committee is looking at potential uses including rails-to-trails conversions and commuter rails.

Kelly Hill helps track energy and transportation issues at NCSL.
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Title Annotation:states' rails-to-trails program
Author:Hill, Kelly
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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