Rails-to-Trails: A Growing Area of Mid-Atlantic Development
Mid-Atlantic contractors can expect to see more “rails-to-trails” work opportunities in the near future. In 1916, at the height of railroad expansion in the United States, there were more than 275,000 miles of railroad track across the county. By the 1970s, many railroad companies had declared bankruptcy and large areas of track had fallen into disuse. As a solution for the miles of unused track, the railbanking movement began. Railbanking is the conversion of abandoned rail lines into usable recreational trails, such as hiking, biking, horse riding, that can easily be converted back to rail lines if necessary.
Railbanking allows a railroad company to transfer the interest in the land formerly used as a rail line to a private organization or public agency that may then use the land for any purpose consistent with future restoration of railroad track and service. This development is commonly referred to as the “rails-to-trails” movement.
Railbanking has been the subject of legal challenges, especially in areas where developers would prefer the land be put to commercial use. One such legal challenge arose from the land known as the Armstrong Trail in Western Pennsylvania. This land was railbanked by Conrail, a provider of rail service to freight customers, and transferred to the Allegheny Valley Land Trust after railroad service was terminated. The Allegheny Valley Land Trust converted the land into a public hiking and biking path.
In Moody v. Allegheny Valley Land Trust, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to decide whether Conrail had properly railbanked the land. The challengers argued that Conrail’s attempt to railbank the land was ineffective because the land was not maintained in a manner that allowed Conrail to immediately restore railroad service. The Allegheny Valley Land Trust argued that use of the land as a trail was not inconsistent with later reinstallation of railroad track in that area. The Court adopted an expansive view of railbanking, holding that Conrail could restore railroad service and that the land did not have to remain free from use in the interim.
The Moody decision was viewed as a great victory for the rails-to-trails movement. Since the decision, there has been an increased interest in rails-to-trails developments. For example, in mid-August, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania solicited electrical and general contractor bids for a rails-to-trails project in Swatara State Park.
With the momentum from the Moody decision and the large amount of unused track in the mid-Atlantic area, contractors may see increased rails-to-trails projects on the horizon.