Preserving Corridors for Trail Use
Railbanking, as defined by the National Trails System Act, 16 USC 1247 (d), is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager without reverting to adjacent landowners. The railbanking provisions of the National Trails System Act as adopted by Congress in 1983 have preserved more than 4,400 miles of rail corridors in 33 states that would otherwise have been abandoned.
In the early 1980s Congress became concerned about the dramatic decline in the nation's railroad infrastructure. With so many railroads abandoning corridors, it became apparent to Congress that something needed to be done to preserve the nation's rail system for future transportation uses. So in 1983 Congress amended Section 8(d) of the National Trails System Act to create a program to preserve rail corridors with a program called "railbanking," a method by which corridors that would otherwise be abandoned can be preserved for future rail use by converting them to interim trails. The old inactive railroad route survives but is repurposed for other—potentially temporary—trail uses.
Railbanking takes place during the rail corridor abandonment process. Official negotiations with the railroad begin after the railroad submits an initial notification to abandon the line (similar to a letter of intent to abandon) to the Surface Transportation Board (STB). Negotiations end with either railbanking or line abandonment.
Opponents of railbanking have unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the railbanking provisions of the National Trails System Act in the United States Supreme Court and continue their efforts to stop implementation through onerous legislative restrictions on trail development introduced regularly in Congress. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy remains vigilant in monitoring legislative and legal assaults on railbanking and will continue to build support in favor of the railbanking statute in the future. The thousands of miles of preserved rail corridor are a testament to the importance of the National Trails System Act.
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