A section of the Schuylkill River Trail between Valley Forge and Philadelphia
NEW YORK NY – A Congressional solution to the question, “what can the nation do with thousands of miles of unwanted, unused railroad tracks?,” was three sentences of legislation that created the national Rails To Trails program in 1983. At the time, according to an article Monday (Sept. 2, 2013) in the New York-based National Law Journal, it seemed a simple and elegant answer.
Congress allowed track beds to be turned into recreational trails for biking and hiking – including miles of existing and planned trails along the Schuylkill River through Pottstown, Lower Pottsgrove and Limerick – while keeping the land under railroads’ ownership if trackage was ever needed in the future.
“But what started out as a well-intentioned law has turned into a major legal liability for taxpayers,” the Journal article claimed. “During the past year alone, the federal government has shelled out $49 million to people who own land abutting the trails, according to the Treasury Department’s Judgment Fund database.”
That’s apparently only a beginning, the article stated.
“The Justice Department says 8,000 claims by property owners remain pending, spawning a whole new practice area — takings class actions,” it added. “The landowners argue that converting rail lines into recreational trails represents a new use of their property, one for which they are entitled to compensation from the government under the Fifth Amendment. To date, the courts have agreed, and plaintiffs lawyers predict the ultimate liability for taxpayers could top $500 million.”
Photo from the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy