NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Rails to Trails Controversy

March 19, 2004

Over the past decade the federal government has spent $4.5 billion on Rails to Trails, a program created in 1983, ostensibly to preserve abandoned rail corridors as trails until the day the nation might need them again for rail traffic.

Although popular with conservation groups, the program has run into opposition recently from farm groups, landowners, property-rights lawyers, and some members of Congress. They argue that trails invade privacy, invite crime and, in some cases, violate the U.S. Constitution by taking land that should revert to others.

  • In the early 1900s there were 300,000 miles of rail lines in the United States, but about half of the nation's routes have fallen into disuse.
  • More than 12,000 miles of hiking and biking trails have been created from the former rail lines with grants from the federal government to improve the right-of-ways.

According to the Justice Department, about 5,000 landowners are in federal courts, and the expenses of defending these cases can be enormous. In Kansas, the government was required to pay land owners $10,000 each for taking their land -- and reimburse the lawyers who represented them for more than $900,000.

The Bush administration is considering opposing more trails unless states foot increasingly steep legal bills.

Source: "Rails to Trails Controversy," Carolina Journal, January 2004, John Locke Foundation.

For text


Browse more articles on Environment Issues