Supreme Court decision may threaten rail-trails

A ruling by the Supreme Court Monday could limit the transformation of railroad right-of-ways into bike and pedestrian corridors. The 8-1 decision ruled that when a railroad had been abandoned, the right-of-way reverts back to the property owner and its future use is at their discretion.

It could derail plans to construct new rail-trails built on former federal land, especially in the West, while the government could also be required to compensate landowners who have converted rail-trails crossing their property.

The case was filed suit by a Wyoming man who owns 83 acres near the Medicine Bow National Forest. When the U.S. Forest service announced it was going to convert the former Wyoming and Colorado Railway right-of-way that crosses his property into a bike path, he objected.

In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts blamed Congress for creating the confusion. The original 1922 law gave abandoned railroad right-of-way property to local municipalities and landowners, but did an “about-face” in 1998. However it was too late. The law “cannot operate to create an interest in land that the government had already given away,” the chief justice said. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenting justice.

The Rails To Trails Conservancy, among many other user groups, were disappointed with the ruling, citing the public interest.

“Just like our national parks, these former rail corridors are public assets in which we all share and benefit,” it said in a blog post. “These federally-granted rights-of-way have played a key role in the nation’s rail-trail movement, which has built thousands of miles of hiking, biking, equestrian, skiing and snowmobile pathways across America over the past 25 years.”

While some trails will face scrutiny, others are protected by ownership rights. The Great Allegheny Passage, for example, would not be affected. The Allegheny Trail Alliance, a collection of seven trail organizations along the route, own the property.

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