State and Local, Sustainability

Adaptive Reuse: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

By: Michael Albalah

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) initiative has provided hikers and bikers with miles of safe and beautiful trails for outdoor recreation. RTC uses a federal legal framework to adapt railroad infrastructure and avoid complex, costly, and time consuming “quiet title” litigation. Investors no longer have to navigate this disincentive to repurpose valuable land. The Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 (RRRR) and the National Trails System Act in 1983 (NTS) catalyzed a national trail system.

RRRR partially remedied the challenge of a labyrinth of incongruent state land use and abandonment laws. RRRRauthorized the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to defer the disposition of rail property for 180 days after the effective date of an abandonment order unless the property had first been offered for sale on reasonable terms for public purposes including recreational use. This provision incentivizes offering rail lines for public outdoor recreation use like rails-to-trails conversions and precluded state law protected property interest claims in abandoned rail lines for the statutory period. Later, this partial remedy was supplemented by Railbanking.

This scheme is responsible for the majority of many rail-to-trail conversions. The National Trails System Act (NTS) enshrined the national policy to preserve railroad corridors for specified uses. These corridors were viewed as national transportation assets. The Act included the policy to encourage energy efficient transportation use. Hiking and biking are energy efficient transportation! The Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of this policy in Preseault v. ICC in 1990 by unanimously upholding Railbanking as a valid exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, stating, “Congress apparently believed that every [rail] line is a potentially valuable national asset that merits preservation even if no future rail use for it is currently foreseeable.” As such, NTS preempts any state or local law inconsistent with the goal of preserving established railroad corridors for interim trail (and future rail) use.

This year RTC announced the Great American Rail Trail to connect Washington D.C. to Washington State via 4,000 miles of rail trails. This is the most ambitious trail project in the history of the U.S. Even if you aren’t a hiker or a biker you might be familiar with another adaptive reuse project in our backyard, the NYC High Line. Keep an eye out for more of these adaptive reuse projects.