U.S. News


Supreme Court Ruling Means Trouble For Federal Bike Trails

The court ruled the government\'s rights to train tracks expire when the tracks are abandoned, a ruling that threatens bike trails across the country.
Posted at 8:54 PM, Mar 10, 2014

In what could be bad news for bike trail riders, a Supreme Court decision Monday put hundreds of miles of trails across the country at risk.

In an 8-1 vote, the court ruled that land once used by the government for railroad lines should revert back to the original owners once the lines are abandoned. A federal program had been converting many of the lines into bike trails. (Via Bloomberg)

The court found that the government didn't own the land, but just had easements on it — that's permission to use someone else's land — and those easements had expired decades ago.

Wyoming man Marvin Brandt originally sued after the Forest Service moved to convert an old rail line crossing his 83-acre property into bike trails. Before the Supreme Court's decision, Brandt had lost twice in the lower circuits. (Via Google Earth)

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the legal question had been settled in 1942, in a similar case that ruled land ownership reverted back to the original owner. (Via SCOTUSblog)

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissent, criticized the majority's interpretation of that case, and said the court tarnished "the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation." (Via Bloomberg)

The ruling could jeopardize almost 1,400 miles of trails facilitated by the Rails to Trails program and will set an anti-trail precedent for 80 other cases pending across the nation. (Via Rails to Trails Conservancy)

But according to The Wall Street Journal, Brandt's lawyer says the trail expansion at the center of the case isn't exactly high traffic, with his client only seeing around 50 bikers on the existing trail since 2006, and adding, "The idea that a bunch of people is going to come out there and start riding that trail is asinine."

The justices did not address the lingering question about exactly how much land is at stake, but during oral arguments back in Janurary, Justice Stephen Breyer noted the government keeps poor track of its easements, saying, "For all I know, there is some right-of-way that goes through people's houses."