Congress, SCOTUS, & Rails to Trails

Rails to TrailsThe Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) handed down a decision Monday that could hurt the popular redevelopment trend of transforming abandoned railroad lines into public bike paths. The ruling states that abandoned railways revert back to the landowners that granted the easement and those are not required to continue granting a federal right of way.

The decision may make it more difficult to build bike or hiking trails in areas of the West where railroads were often built on former federal land. In some instances, local governments may be forced to pay compensation to owners whose land is now crossed by bike paths or other government-built trails and parks.

In an 8-1 decision, the justices ruled in favor of Marvin Brandt, a Wyoming man who controls 83 acres of land that was formerly used by the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad, located near the Medicine Bow National Forest. When the U.S. Forest Service told Brandt that the government retained the railroad’s right of way across his land and planned to use it for a bike trail, he filed suit.

SCOTUS held the Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 gave the rail lines a temporary easement across the land, but once the rail line was abandoned and the property was sold, the government no longer had a right of way. So when the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad abandoned the line in 2004, “Brandt’s land became unburdened of the easement, conferring on him the same full rights” to keep others off his private property. Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in Brandt vs. United States did not discuss bike trails, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a lone dissent, said the decision “undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation. And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

In his opinion, the Chief Justice blamed Congress and the federal government for changing their stance on property rights. He said lawmakers in 1922 said that rights of way that were abandoned by the railroads could become the property of a municipality or a private owner. But in 1988, when the rails-to-trails movement was gaining popularity, “Congress did an about-face” and passed a new law to reserve these rights for the government. By then, Brandt and other private buyers like him had purchased some of the land. The law “cannot operate to create an interest in land that the government had already given away,” the chief justice said.