Supreme Court Strikes Blow to "Rail-to-Trails" Program


In the latest in a string of recent U.S. Supreme Court cases that impact right of way issues, on Monday the Court issued its opinion in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States (Case No. 12-1173, March 10, 2014).  The issue in Brandt involved whether the U.S. Government retained a reversionary interest in the easements it granted to railroads pursuant to the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. 

The decision would impact, in particular, the "rails-to-trails" program, designed to convert old, abandoned railroad rights of way to bike trails.  Under the program, the Government has contributed right of way that it claimed reverted to its ownership once the railroads abandoned them.  But some of the people who owned the underlying fee interests felt that the railroad easements were extinguished when the railroads abandoned them, meaning the owners now owned an unencumbered fee, rather than a fee with an easement held by the Federal Government. 

In Brandt, the Court held that the Government possessed no reversionary interest and that, as a result, the abandoned easements were extinguished in favor of the underlying fee owners

Justice Sotomayor, in a lone dissent, argued that the Government did possess reversionary rights, and that the decision could "cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."  For more on the decision, see our article, Rails-to-Trails Decision: Supreme Court Holds that Government Does Not Retain Reversionary Interest.  If you want even more details, there has been ample press coverage, including:

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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