This week the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing testimony in a case (Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust et al., v. United States) that could have national consequences on rails-to-trails projects. The case is about whether the U.S. Government has a right to the land they granted to the railroads in the late 1880’s.
SCOTUSBLOG has some interesting background on the case and the decision to be made:
When the American West was being settled and developed, the laying of railroad lines had a major role in connecting the people and industry of the region to each other and to the rest of the nation. The federal government encouraged that process by giving rail companies a form of subsidy through a grant of rights-of-way on government-owned lands for railroad beds…
The dispute, in fact, is a classic one of competing interests: the personal right to own property free of restrictions that the government may assert, perhaps belatedly, versus the government’s obligation to manage the public lands to maximize policy goals to serve a supposedly larger community of interest.
The Burke-Gilman Trail here in the Mountains to Sound Greenway faced a similar question during its creation in the 1970’s: Should abandoned rail corridors stay in public
use? When Burlington Northern announced they would abandon the tracks in 1971, a group of neighbors campaigned to have the corridor converted into a public trail. At their request, Senator Warren Magnuson sent a letter to the Interstate Commerce Commission which resulted in a national precedent-setting answer: Local governments had right of first refusal when a railroad gives up its right-of-way. This decision gave birth to the rails-to-trails movement around the country and helped created hundreds of miles of public trails.
The Burke-Gilman Trail was not part of the federal land grant program and will not be affected by the Supreme Court ruling, however, the case could have consequences for other rails-to-trails projects around the country.