Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Supreme Court's rails-to-trails decision generates uncertainty

Posted By on Tue, Mar 11, 2014 at 11:36 AM

The Rochester area is fortunate to have a lot of great bike trails. Not just scenic paths that provide a good place for a leisurely weekend ride, but trails that go places. 

And several of those trails follow old, abandoned railroad lines. It turns out that once the trains stopped using the old tracks, the rails could be torn up and and the underlying ground resurfaced to provide cyclists with a relatively smooth ride. Most of the existing state-owned Genesee Valley Greenway was built on old rail beds, as was the Henrietta Foundation's Lehigh Valley Trail in Rush, Henrietta, and Brighton. The Auburn Trail in Victor, Perinton, and Pittsford also makes use of former rail beds.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a decision that could make a mess of some federal rails to trails projects, mostly in the West. The decision in Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States has been covered in some detail by SCOTUSblogNPRSalon, and probably several others. According to the NPR article, the Supremes ruled that the federal government loses control of the right of ways it once granted to railroad companies after the track has been abandoned. The federal government has been reclaiming some railroad right of ways for use as bike paths. The Salon article explains the ramifications of the decision:
The case wasn’t about bike paths per se — it was about whether or not the federal government retains its control over land that had been granted to railroad companies once it’s been abandoned. But the decision undermines a federal “rails to trails” program, threatening the more than 1,400 bike and nature trails it’s created since its inception in 1983.
But the Rochester-area trails should be unaffected by the decision, since they appear to use different ownership and right-of-way arrangements than the federal project at issue in the Supreme Court case. For example, Rochester Gas and Electric owns the former rail bed that the Auburn Trail runs along, via a right-of-way agreement. And the state owns the property that makes up the Genesee Valley Greenway.

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