Rail-trails are subject to a unique, and occasionally complex, mix of federal and state law. Many rail-trail conversions are “railbanked” under Section 8(d) of the National Trails Systems 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.Some rail-trail conversions take place after the corridors have been legally “abandoned” and, therefore, are 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-inaid of construction are subject to their own unique set of federal laws governing post-railroad use and disposition.
This commentary provides a summary of the legal issues that arise in the context of rails-to-trails conversion, 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.