| What is a rail-trail?
Rail-trails are multi-purpose public paths created along inactive or abandoned railroad corridors. Flat or following a gentle grade, they traverse urban, suburban and rural America. Ideal for many uses, such as bicycling, walking, horseback riding, in-line skating, cross-country skiing and wheelchair recreation, rail-trails are extremely popular as recreation and transportation corridors. To date, more than 12,000 miles of rail-trails have been created across the country. Rail-trails also serve as historic and wildlife conservation corridors, linking isolated parks and creating greenways through developed areas. They also may stimulate local economies by increasing tourism and promoting local business.
Do rail-trails encourage railroad abandonment?
No. Rail-trails are built after all possibilities for continued rail service have been exhausted. Rail-trails preserve the linear corridor in public ownership and provide the silver lining to the tragic decline in the nation's railroad network, still one of the most environmentally sound forms of transportation.
What does 'abandoned' mean?
A railroad corridor is generally considered abandoned when: (1) rail service is discontinued; (2) the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) officially approves the abandonment; and (3) tariffs (pay-schedules) are canceled. A rail corridor can be legally abandoned even if the tracks and ties are still in place. Conversely, even if the tracks are out, it might not be legally abandoned.
What is 'railbanking?'
Railbanking (as defined by the National Trails System Act, 16USC1247(d) is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until some railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager without reverting to adjacent landowners. See also Testimony of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Before the Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, U.S. House of Representatives, June 20, 2002, for good background on the federal railbanking program and the legal challenges faced in trail conversions.
Who builds the trail?
In most cases, the public agency that buys or manages the corridor builds the trail. The agency either develops it using its own labor and equipment or hires an independent construction company. In a few cases, a group of citizen volunteers has constructed a trail.
Who manages the trail
Trails are generally managed by local, state or federal government agencies, but some are operated by other types of organizations, including non-profit "friends of the trail" citizen groups, land trusts and community foundations.
Where are the trails located?
All across America, over 12,328 miles of rail-trails are enjoyed by 100 million people per year.
What about public and private liability?
Generally trails are covered by the overall insurance policy of the public entity that manages the trail. Public liability risks from trails are small relative to other public services like roads, playgrounds and swimming pools. By taking safety concerns into account when designing and maintaining a trial, the risks can be minimized. With respect to liability risks to trail neighbors, private landowners are protected by recreation use statutes in all states except Alaska and in the District of Columbia. Under these statutes, a landowner who does not charge a trail access fee will not be held liable for injuries sustained on his/her property unless an injured person can prove "willful and wanton misconduct on the part of the landowner".
How does the proposed trail affect property rights?
Under the federal railbanking law, a corridor can be used as a trail, to preserve the corridor for future transportation use, without land reverting to adjacent landowners. The Supreme Court has stated that railbanking is consistent with the language and intent of railroad transportation easements and is therefore constitutional. Rail-trails are developed under many different circumstances, but in every case a trail's managing body needs to own the corridor or have an easement in place. Trail managers need to know their contractual requirements and have clear policies regarding adjacent landowners' use and crossings.
How should user conflicts be addressed?
Creating the best trail possible requires tailoring trail design and permitted uses to the communities through which it passes. There may be circumstances or trial characteristics that make some uses impractical in certain areas. To prevent conflicts, a trail should be wide enough, generally 10 feet minimum and at least 12 feet wide for urban and suburban trails, or where heavy use is expected. Naturally, trail rules should be posted at trailheads and near major road crossings, as well as in any trial-related literature. The trail could form a User Advisory committee, made up of representatives from different users groups and trail neighbors, to discuss and solve problems.
Who will pick up the litter?
Trash has not presented much of a problem on most rail-trails. Some trails have successfully adopted a "pack out what you pack in" position while others have a regular maintenance schedule to empty well placed waste and recycling receptacles. Whatever method is used, proper sign placement along the trail and will help ensure its success.
Where will money come from to build a trail?
Many sources of federal, state, local and private funding are available for most trails. Although some opponents may say a trail is a waste of money, rail-trail costs $50,000 to $200,000 per mile to acquire and build, compared to $1 million a mile for a suburban street and $100 million a mile for some highways. In addition, the economic benefits often outweigh the costs.
Most fear of rail-trails stem from a lack of knowledge. If you have concerns or an interest in your local rail-trail, get involved.
Source: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy