In a controversial ruling referring to easements on rail corridors converted to “interim” trail use in the State of Indiana, the Indiana Supreme Court on March 20, 2012 ruled that the land easements under which railroads had been built, would not apply to rail trails built on the former railroad right-of-ways. Not only, it seemed, would an interested party wanting to convert a rail corridor put up for abandonment into a trail have to negotiate with the rail line, but would have to buy out all the property owners of record that the line occupied as well.
This sent shockwaves through the trails community in Indiana.
Did this mean that rail trails built under federal railbanking statutes had no legal standing as trails in Indiana? Did this wipe out all possibility that a rail corridor up for abandonment in Indiana could ever be preserved as a rail trail?
In response to these and other concerns, the Hoosier Rails to Trails Council, Inc. (HRTC), investigated the matter, and in June,2012, published an article in its quarterly newsletter Hoosier Pathways.
The article expressed that the Indiana Supreme Court ruling would not, in fact, affect past or future efforts to preserve rail corridors under railbanking statutes. Notably, the article had the benefit of a review and approval by the Communications Department of the Surface Transportation Board of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Surprisingly, on July 9, 2012, the Indiana Department of Transportation issued a ruling, subsequently adopted as policy by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which contradicted this understanding.
The INDOT ruling, addressed to “local public agency and consultant partners” stated, in part, that “…if a railroad holds an easement for the purpose of operating a rail line, a public trail is not within the scope of such an easement. This is true even if the rail line is ‘railbanked’ under federal law for interim trail use.”
Responding to calls from constituents in Indiana, HRTC accepted the challenge of advocating for a correction of this patently erroneous interpretation, in our opinion, of standing federal statute.
The federal railbanking code conditionally preserves rail corridor right-of-ways as interim trails, allowing for potential reuse as active rail lines. In fact, the Surface Transportation Board, on April 30, 2012, clarified and refined the applicable statute which maintains that "A rail-banked line is not abandoned, but rather remains part of the national rail system..." (Docket EP 702, Surface Tranpsortation Board, February 10, 2011.)
In particular, the INDOT policy jeopardized long standing plans to extend the Nickel Plate Rail Trail from its southernmost terminus at Cassville, through to the north side of the City of Kokomo. Planning for this extension and three road crossings along the trail would provide a valuable and long sought amenity for the city. This ruling threw a monkey wrench into the longstanding plans.
Appeals to INDOT to reassess their ruling by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, as well as an inquiry by representatives of the Surface Transportation Board as to the legal status of the rule await an outcome.
Article by Mario Vian