What Does The Supreme Court Rails-To-Trails Decision Mean For NC?

Mar 12, 2014

The American Tobacco Trail in Durham.
Credit Laura Candler

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in an 8-1 decision, that just because the government had been granted a federal right of way for building railroads, doesn't mean the government gets to keep that right of way after the railroad is no longer in use.

At issue was whether or not the land the rail line sits on should go to the property owner adjacent the rails, or if the government can allow other groups to use it for such projects as rails-to-trails.

North Carolina is home to more than 30 rails-to-trails projects, including the 23-mile American Tobacco Trail in Raleigh/Durham. So, the question is, what does this ruling mean for NC's rail trails?

In short: Not much.

A lot of it has to do with state laws in the West vs. those in the East. Every state is different but, generally, in the wide expanses (and much longer railways) out West, the policy has been to grant trail groups access to the old right of ways in full. Some projects are hundreds of miles long.

Here in North Carolina, the land under those railroads automatically reverts to the adjacent landowners when the line goes out of comission. So groups like North Carolina Rail Trails needs to go to each individual property owner, one by one, and negotiate public access to the space.

"And that really just takes a long time," said Carrie Banks, the group's Executive Director.

"And it takes a lot of trust building and taking [property owners] to successful rail trails like the American Tobacco and the Virginia Creeper, and showing them what a successful trail looks like."

North Carolina Rail Trails Map Of Existing Projects

While some of North Carolina's rail trails are impressive, even Banks admits the state has had less success than those out West in developing large scale projects. A lot of that has to do with the time it takes to acquire the land piecemeal.

It's unclear what effect the ruling will have on trail projects already in progress. Many expect a significant increase in litigation going forward.