As Printed in the Hendersonville Times News
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
As a longtime business owner in Hendersonville and former chairman of the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce, I believe that good jobs, quality of life and the economic vitality of our region are of paramount importance. The proposed Ecusta Trail, a 19-mile greenway along the existing rail line connecting Hendersonville and Brevard, will be a catalyst for all three.
Unused for rail service since 2002, this corridor should be preserved for future rail use while maximizing its current potential as an economic driver. But how can you do both? Through a win-win mechanism called railbanking that is already used to preserve many of our nation’s inactive rail lines. Railbanking is a method to preserve rail lines for future use while allowing the inactive line to provide economic and quality-of-life benefits.
To better explain the concept, what follows is a series of the most commons questions we receive:
• What is railbanking? Railbanking was adopted by Congress during the Reagan administration in 1983 in response to the rapid contraction of America’s rail network, and the realization that many important rail lines were being lost forever due to abandonment. With railbanking, rail corridors are preserved in perpetuity for future rail use.
• Why would a railroad want to railbank a line? Railroads are in the business of transporting people or goods, but they are also operating entities that realize some lines have no current value for that purpose. A railbanked corridor can be sold, leased or donated to a public agency or qualified private organization, thereby potentially generating income from the sale or lease while alleviating expenses such as maintenance, taxes and liability.
• Is the rail line abandoned if it is railbanked? No, the line is not abandoned. The corridor is sold, leased or donated to the public agency or qualified private organization with the understanding that it could be repurchased in the future to re-establish rail service.
• Does the right of way surrounding the line revert to the adjacent landowners? No. Since the line is not abandoned, the entire corridor remains intact for future use.
• How much does a railbanked line cost? As with any asset, the railroad can negotiate a sale or lease price or choose to donate a corridor.
• Was railbanking established to promote trails? No. Railbanking was created to preserve railroad corridors, first and foremost. Rail trails are merely a side benefit gained from this law as they provide an alternate use while the corridor is railbanked.
• If a line comes out of railbanking into active use, is the owner out of his investment? No. If a railroad applies to remove a corridor from railbanking, it must pay the owner fair market value for it.
• Who decides if a rail line goes into or comes out of railbanking? The owning railroad and the Surface Transportation Board (STB). The STB is an independent adjudicatory and economic regulatory agency charged by Congress with resolving railroad rate and service disputes and reviewing proposed railroad mergers.
• Have any lines actually come out of railbanking? Yes. At least nine corridors or partial corridors have been removed from railbanking. In some instances, there were associated trails, and in some, there were not. When trails were involved, the railroad often negotiated to keep the trail along with re-establishing service.
• When a line is railbanked, are the rails and ties removed? Can structures be built in the right of way? Railbanking allows for the crossties and rails to be removed, however, it does not allow for permanent structures to be built within the corridor. Likewise, parts of the corridor cannot be parceled off and sold.
• Are there any nearby examples of railbanked lines? Yes. The best known is probably the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Travelers Rest. Greenville County worked with the railroad to purchase the 21-mile rail corridor for $1 million and railbank the line. The county then sold the cross ties and steel for $1 million. The Tweetsie line in Johnson City, Tenn., is another recent example. The 10-mile section of line was purchased for $600,000 and railbanked in 2011.
The Friends of the Ecusta Trail have always advocated for the corridor to be railbanked once the railroad decides to remove it from service. We realize this route is an important asset for our region that cannot be lost. Railbanking keeps the corridor intact in perpetuity in case there is a viable option for rail use in the future. In the meantime, our area will benefit economically, recreationally and health-wise through interim use as a trail.