Rail-trails are subject to a unique, and occasionally complex, mixture of federal and state law. Many rail-trail conversions are "railbanked" under Section 8(d) of the National Trails System Act, often called "the Railbanking Act" or the "Rails-to-Trails Act." This important federal law, enacted by Congress in 1983 to preserve established railroad corridors for interim trail and future rail use, preempts state or local laws that are inconsistent with these goals.
Other rail-trail conversions take place after the corridors have been legally "abandoned" and are therefore subject to the vagaries of state law in resolving ownership disputes. And railroad corridors that were originally assembled through federal land grants or federal grants-in-aid of construction are subject to their own unique set of federal laws governing post-railroad use and disposition.
This article, a prior version of which appeared as a Commentary in the American Planning Association's Planning & Environmental Law Vol. 58, No. 9, p. 3 (September 2006), provides an updated summary of the legal issues that often arise in rails-to-trails conversions, as well as an overview of how some of those issues have been resolved. While citations to pertinent case law are provided, this article does not provide an exhaustive review of relevant legal authority.
The law on rails-to-trails conversions is continually evolving as the number of rail-trails increases. Railsto-Trails Conservancy has materials and resources on its website and provides other services to assist governmental and non-governmental organizations in sorting through the various legal, political and communications issues that may arise during the course of a rails-to trails conversion.
Since 1986, RTC has been the nation's foremost legal advocate for rail-trails in the nonprofit sector.