Photo CC Oliver Rich via Flickr

Acquiring a rail corridor and transforming it into a trail is rarely a simple, straightforward task. The process often requires multiple stages of groundwork, including conducting corridor research to determine who owns the right-of-way, figuring the cost, or value, of the corridor and securing financing or funding options for trail development and maintenance.

Phases of Acquisition

Who to Involve

Engaging the appropriate people in your trail project is a necessary step. When you're organizing your project, identify individuals with appropriate skills to catalyze trail development. Some suggested positions and experts include the following:

  • Project manager, lead negotiator and spokesperson: These roles may be filled by the same person or separate individuals.
  • Attorney: Few attorneys specialize in railroad law, so you may need to work with a lawyer who practices real estate law.
  • Appraiser: Your state's comptroller of treasury may be the official qualified to appraise railroad property. The National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers and the Appraisal Institute both offer searchable directories.
  • Surveyor
  • Environmental engineer: Your state environmental agency may be able to provide information on toxic remediation and brownfield issues.
  • Historic preservation specialist: Your state historic preservation officer is a good resource for information on the historical significance of nearby structures or locations.

You may need to hire a professional to complete some of these responsibilities, but finding community members who support trail development and are willing to volunteer their expertise is ideal. Read more about building your coalition in Chapter 2, “Assembling Your Team,” in Acquiring Rail Corridors: A How to Manual.

How to Acquire a Railroad Corridor for Trail Use

Depending on the interest of the railroad and the status of the corridor, there are several methods of acquisition. You may be able to railbank the corridor if it has not yet been abandoned, or consider a rail-with-trail project to share the space. If the corridor has been abandoned already, some of your options include purchase, land lease, easement and land donation.

Acquisition of the corridor may include a bundle of property rights, which may also be physically distinguished as surface, subsurface and air rights. Some trails share corridor use (or property rights) with utility companies. This overlap may be predetermined in the acquisition agreement or leveraged to offset the cost of the trail.

You must also fulfill the due diligence process prior to acquisition. From your preliminary corridor research, you will need to examine the state of the title, survey the property, appraise the corridor, assess structures within the corridor and complete an environmental assessment. For more information, read Chapter 9, “Due Diligence,” in Acquiring Rail Corridors: A How to Manual.

When to Act

Depending on how you are acquiring a piece of property, timelines may be more urgent. If railbanking is an option, you will have to closely follow the abandonment timeline and procedure set by the Surface Transportation Board. Otherwise, refer to acquisition methods to learn more about different acquisition alternatives.

Topics in this section: