"Rails to Trails" Versus Original Landowners

November 3, 2003

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.
  • In September, trail opponents persuaded the House Appropriations Committee to delete a $600 million in program funding, but in the full House, trail backers restored the funding.

The original 1983 Rails to Trails law decreed that an "interim use" as a trail would stop the land from legally reverting to its previous owners. But the heirs of some previous owners are suing because the railroads in the 1870s in some cases bought only temporary rights for a specific use. Some railroads simply took land from farmers.

According to the Justice Department, about 5,000 land owners 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 for taking their land -- and reimburse the lawyers who represented them for over $900,000. The Bush administration is considering opposing more trails unless states foot increasingly steep legal bills.

Source: John J. Fialka, "'Rails to Trails' Faces Some Bumpy Tracks," Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2003.

 

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