FAQs

Do You Have a Question on Rail-Trails in North Carolina?

If you have a question on rail-trails, feel free to email us and we'll try to get you an answer. If it is of general interest we'll also post the Q & A on this page. Please send your inquiries to our Webmaster.  This page was initiated in August 2009. As we receive new information and suggestions our intent is to expand this page to address additional categories of information on rail-trails in North Carolina.

Initial Categories of Information

  • Identifying Potential Rail-Trails
  • Researching Ownership of RR Corridors
  • Use of Railbanking and Other Means to Protect Out of Use Corridors
  • Role of Public Agencies in Rail-Trail Development
  • Types of Assistance/Resources Available from NCRT
  • Financial Support Options for Rail-Trail Development
  • Role of Local Groups in Trail Advocacy, Seeking Grants and Coordinating Volunteer Efforts

FAQ #1: What is Federal Railbanking and How Does it Work?

ANSWER: Federal railbanking is a procedure for corridor preservation through the authority of the US DOT Surface Transportation Board (STB) under 16 U.S.C.A. 1247(d) [National Trails Systems Act]. Railbanking is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a qualified agency or other organization to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until some railroad might need the rail corridor again for rail service. Any qualified private organization or public agency may request the STB to assign a public use condition and interim trail use condition certificate for the to-be-abandoned rail corridor to the railbanking organization or agency. The applicant must express a willingness to assume financial responsibility for the corridor. Railbanking protects the corridor from adjacent property owner claims, allows interim trail use and preserves the corridor for possible future rail use. Rail service can be returned at the request of a bona fide railroad. Further discussion of railbanking can be found at the Rails-to Trails Conservancy

 

FAQ #2: What are the first steps in converting a rail-trail?

ANSWER: If possible, federal railbanking should be pursued through the process noted in the above FAQ when the railroad applies to abandon rail service on the corridor in question. If an abandonment proceeding is not before the STB, one must determine if cessation and abandonment of rail service on the corridor has been permitted by the STB. Rail service on a railroad corridor is generally considered abandoned when (1) rail service is discontinued (2) the Surface Transportation Board (STB) officially approves the abandonment and (3) tariffs (rate schedules) are canceled. Status of abandonment can be determined through the rail office of your state Department of Transportation or by contacting the railroad company. After abandonment, the railroad company usually removes the rails and ties for salvage and regrades the corridor with the original ballast left by the railroad. However, a rail corridor can be legally abandoned even if the tracks and ties are still in place. The next question to be explored is the nature of the railroad’s ownership of the inactive corridor. If owned outright, negotiations would be made with the railroad for a donation or purchase. If the railroad only owned an easement in whole or in part of the corridor, there may have been reversions to the adjoining landowners if there was an abandonment of the easement according to state law. If there were reversions, negotiations with the adjacent owners of the reverted parcels would be necessary. Theoretically, eminent domain (condemnation) by a governmental entity is possible but rarely used. An abandonment of rail service on the corridor before the STB should not be confused with an abandonment of an easement under state law.  See a short discussion on the legal principles affecting the ownership of rail-trails in North Carolina including abandonment.

 

FAQ #3: Who Builds and Manages Rail-Trails?

ANSWER: In most cases the local, state or federal government agency that buys the corridor builds the trail as well. The agency develops it using its own labor and equipment or hires an independent construction company. In a few cases, groups of citizen volunteers have constructed a trail. Trails are generally managed by public agencies, but some are operated by other types of organizations, including nonprofit "friends of the trail" citizen groups, land trusts (such as NCRT) and community foundations. As a land trust, NCRT assisted in acquiring, railbanking and holding interim title to the Dunn-Erwin corridor and worked closely with local agencies and volunteer groups in obtaining resources and building the trail. See our Spring 2002 Little Toot for more on the Dunn-Erwin trail.

FAQ #4: What is a 'public use condition' and a 'notice or certificate of interim trail use'?

ANSWER: Both are documents that can be issued by the STB during the abandonment process. A public use condition (PUC) gives public agencies the exclusive right to negotiate for 180 days with the railroad for purchase of an abandoned corridor. During this time, bridges, culverts, surface material and any other features essential to building a trail must be kept intact. A notice or certificate of interim trail use permits the railroad and trail manager to negotiate for railbanking and use of the line for a trail.

FAQ #5: Is there a form I could use to document the condition and status of an unused corridor?

ANSWER: YES there is a form that may serve this purpose if you are just starting the process entitled "Form to Assess Unused Rail Corridor...". You may download it from our Law, Court Cases and Support documents area.

FAQ #6: Is there any guidance for researching railroad corridor property ownership?

ANSWER: YES. You can download a short PDF (Researching RR Property) from our Law, Court Cases and Support documents area that presents an overview of researching deeds in County records. Some key issues relating to RR ownership are presented in an April 2008 legal memorandum.

FAQ #7: Could you describe the purpose of Rail-Trail Master Plans?

ANSWER: A rail-trail Master Plan is a comprehensive planning document that usually includes the proposal for the trail, a project map, a concept brochure, the location of the railbed, a background history of the community, the railroad and trail's context, a site analysis including points of interest, attractions, and natural features and systems. The Master Plan includes a description of how the plan was developed, a listing of goals and objectives, issues needing to be addressed including corridor ownership, acquisition, funding sources, management, administration, maintenance, security, safety, promotion and marketing. Other content includes site design elements for the trail, a proposed implementation schedule, and an estimated budget. NCRT has partnered with consultants, local governments, local rail-trail groups, citizen's groups, non-profits, tourism authorities, and NC State University School of Landscape Architecture. Since 1991, at least eight Master Plans have been developed, including those for the American Tobacco Trail (ATT), the Dunn-Erwin Trail and the Chatham County portion of the ATT.

FAQ # 8: Could you outline the funding programs that are available for developing rail trails in North Carolina?

ANSWER: A number of programs exist. Federal Transportation Enhancement  (TE) funding is administered by NC DOT. One of the 12 qualifying TE activities is the Preservation of Abandoned Rail Corridors. This program has been used to plan and develop bicycle and pedestrian trails, and in a few cases for acquisition of right of ways. The TE program in North Carolina is a reimbursement program and project sponsors are required to provide a 20% cash match for the cost of the project. In-kind donations cannot be used for matching. Since 1992 NCDOT has awarded well over $8 million specifically for the conversion of rail corridors into trails.

The State of North Carolina has two continuing grant programs for developing and/or enhancing trails: the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) and the Adopt-A-Trail (AAT) program. If funding is available, North Carolina’s Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) invites trail advocates to submit applications to receive grants under these programs. Applications are judged on their merit and the top proposals are awarded grants. The national Recreational Trails Program (RTP) has a limit of $50,000 and requires a local match of 20% which can include “in kind” contributions by the grantee. RTP is a state pass-through of Congressional Transportation Funding.

The Adopt-A-Trail program has recently had a total allocation of ~$108,000 and grants under this program are limited to $5,000. AAT and RTP grants are reimbursable and focus on getting trail on the ground. The AAT requires no monetary matching but some matching is required under the RTP grants. Proposals showing a significant resource contribution (volunteer labor, funds, donated materials etc.) by the applicant are typically scored higher in the competitive process. Both of these programs have supported rail-trail efforts in recent years. For further information on the next competitive period, due date(s) and applicable forms, please go to the Division of Parks & Recreation at http://www.ncparks.gov/About/grants/trails_grant.php . In addition, feel free to contact Vincent Newman-Brooks of North Carolina’s State Trails Program at 919 715-1846 for more specific guidance on these programs.

Other grants are also available for rail-trail projects. The Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund have funded rail-trails; most recently the Carolina Thread Trail received Clean Water funding for permanent land conservation and trails along regional waterways as part of its 2010 grant allocation. Several of the larger counties have Open Space, Trails and Greenway programs that can support rail-trails. Finally, there are private groups such as the Bikes Belong Coalition, the REI Gives program http://www.rei.com/aboutrei/gives02.html , Kodak Greenways, local bicycle clubs and various foundations.

FAQ #9: Beyond the monies from these on-going NC grant programs, haven’t some counties received Federal funding through transportation earmarks and more recently under stimulus programs?

ANSWER: Yes, several NC rail-trails have received Federal money to support planning and construction activities. Since 1999 the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) has received Federal funds which supported major portions of the construction in all three counties. Much of this was provided under various “earmark” items where particular projects were identified in appropriations for Federal transportation funds provided to States. Such funds were provided under provisions allowing support of non-highway projects. Typically these “earmarks” provided a large portion of the project’s needs but did require at least 20% of the project's budget to be supplied by the county. In early 2009, Gastonia’s Highland Rail-Trail was awarded $850,000 in Federal Stimulus funding to extend the trail through the downtown along street corridors. It is not clear whether either of these funding sources will be a predictable source for rail-trail development in the future.

On the Cloninger trail in Lincolnton -- March 2011

 

FAQ # 10: Could you describe the role of the Rail Corridor Round Table (RCRT) and how NC Rail-Trails participates in the group’s activities?

ANSWER: The RCRT was established in the mid-1990s as a forum to explore ways to promote rail corridor preservation, rail-trail development and future rail service. It now includes representatives of NCRT, the railroads, the state’s departments of transportation, environment & natural resources, commerce, tourism, archives and history and parks & recreation. The round table meets about six times a year, is hosted by David Coats (NCRT’s counsel) and is facilitated by NCRT. The round table’s goal is the “best use of the state’s rail corridor assets”. For most meetings the topics include Legislative Watch, Rail Corridor Preservation, Rail Corridor Conversion and Public Policy/Courts/Legal Issues. In recent years, NCRT has assisted the Round Table in drafting proposed legislation to allow NCDOT to lease for trail use its 90 miles of state railbanked rail corridors, has actively advocated for the use of Federal railbanking for corridor preservation, and has promoted the use of rail-with-trail to maximize the transportation capacity of the state’s rail corridors. The group also was a prime mover in getting the NCDOT Rail Division to prepare a digital map of all of the state’s historic rail corridors for use in rail and trail planning.

FAQ #11: I'm just starting to investigate the status of an unused corridor in my area. What kinds of technical or other assistance can NCRT provide?

ANSWER: NCRT has been involved in all phases of rail-trail development since 1989 and has much institutional familiarity with the tasks and processes involved in initiating a new rail-trail project. NCRT’s primary information contact (currently Board Member AL Capehart) will be glad to provide telephone and Email consultation on getting started. Our Laws, Court Cases and Support documents page includes guidance useful in the early phases of trail development such as researching corridors and title searching under NC law.

FAQ #12: I have the distinct impression that because property owners abutting rail lines in NC get automatic ownership of the right of way that rail lines vacate, thaere is not now, nor will there ever be a future for the rail-to-trails movement in NC. Are there reasons to think otherwise?

ANSWER: The future of rail-trails in North Carolina will continue the struggle begun in Durham in 1985 for the American Tobacco Trail. There are now 77 miles of rail-trail on the ground in North Carolina resulting mostly from volunteer’s efforts.  Other states legislatively recognize rail corridors as public transportation rights of way where local, regional and state governments convert the transportation function to bicycling and walking. But, North Carolina’s leadership has not embraced “Trails as Transportation”. Nor the idea of a human powered transportation function in railroad rights of way.  The future of rail-trails in North Carolina depends upon the resourcefulness, vigilance and persistence of active transportation enthusiast across the state. NCRT works with rail-trail groups across the state.  

There is a back-story to your “distinct impression” about railroads walking away from their rights of way. In 1980 the Staggers Act deregulated the railroad industry. In no time a 350,000 mile national rail network was down to about 150,000 miles. 200,000 miles of right of way were declared redundant and abandoned. The railroads were shedding their liability. Also, The National Trail System Act, 16 U.S.C. s1247 (d) was passed granting the ICC (Surface Transportation Board) the authority to assign the railroads liability to a state or local government or non-profit for interim trail use protecting the corridor for future trail use. NCRT did the first Federal Railbank in NC in 2000 with the Dunn-Erwin Railway. The 5-mile Dunn-Erwin Trail is now a Harnett County Park. Over the years railroads have shed most of the rail lines they intended to, while local governments, state government and citizens groups have organized themselves to protect, preserve and retrieve the public transportation function in the old rail beds. 

Reversion does happen, but it is not automatic now. The most recent vacation of a rail line (2008) in NC was in Gaston County--the Norfolk Southern (NS) line between Gastonia and Dallas. There was a 3 1/2 year effort by local governments to negotiate a Federal Railbank of the corridor. Finally, NS decided to abandoned its interest at the request of Dallas City Council and Gaston County Commission, because they did not want a way for "those people" from north Gastonia to walk or bicycle to Dallas. Oh yes, a developer wanted the corridor next to Hwy 321 for his mall and condos. For the full story please go to the Spring 2008 issue of Little Toot

How the railroads got their rights of way determines their property interest, fee simple, fee simple determinable, or railroad easement and effects how the railroad disposes of its rights of way. Except for a few lumber railroads, all are or have been under the regulatory authority of the Surface Transportation Board. At the railroad's request the STB may grant authority for the railroad to discontinue services or abandoned service in the corridor. But, in NC if the railroad leaves the tracks in place then the corridor is not abandoned. {For further discusion of reversion please see Trail Notebook article in the Summer 2005 Little Toot.} NS has left its tracks in place all across the state. It is called "self-railbanking". NS is protecting its interest in the corridor even if they do not own the underlying fee. If the tracks are removed, and the railroad holds a railroad easement then adjacents are presumed to be the property owners for tax purposes. However, if the instrument creating the right of way is a "fee simple determinable" and the Marketable Title Act is applied, then the right of way is judged to be owned in fee by the railroad. Where the railroad acquired the right of way in fee, then it is the railroad's to dispose of as it sees fit. In NC ‘squatters’ have no rights on railroad property.

There are two other forms of railbanking that have been used in NC: Federal railbanking and State railbanking. Federal railbanking occurs at the railroad’s request to the STB to assign a certificate of interim trail use where the recipient of the certificate assumes the liability of the corridor, and protects the corridor for future rail use. Federal Railbanking has occurred three times in NC protecting nearly 17 miles of railbed: The Dunn-Erwin Trail (Aberdeen and Rockfish RR) in Harnett County, the Thermal Belt Rail-Trail (Thermal Belt RR) in Rutherford County and the Highlands Rail-Trail (NS) in Gastonia.

State Railbanking is authorized by General Statute 136-44.36B: ..."power to preserve and acquire rail corridor". The NCDOT Rail Division purchases select rail corridors. State Railbanked corridors may be leased for rail-trail development, only if the railroad right of way is in fee e.g. the American Tobacco Trail in Durham, Chatham and Wake Counties (22 miles when complete). NCDOT has also state railbanked about 80 miles of other railroad easements it manages, but cannot lease for trail development because of arcane legislation. Repeated efforts to change this legislation have failed.

Retrieval is the final strategy for rail-trail development. Most of the engineering of an abandoned and reverted railbed is still on the ground and in place and some folks do want to have a rail-trail on their property or nearby. In 2009 NCRT helped in the opening of the first section of the Deep River Rail-Trail in Franklinville, Randolph County, see our Fall 2009 Little Toot.  A 30' trail easement (for 3/4 of a mile) on the railbed was granted to the town by the property owner and green developer. It is the first section of a planned 6-mile rail-trail from Ramseur to Cedar Falls along the river. Funds will be sought to buy the remaining railbed, as needed.

This is not a definitive answer to the question, but there are 77 miles of rail-trails open to the public (the 10 mile former rail corridor now Railroad Grade Road in Ashe County is a highway/vehicle road and not included here) and NCRT continues to seek "to protect rail corridors for trail and rail with trails use".

FAQ #13: Do rail trails attract crime and vandalism?

ANSWER: There is no evidence that developed rail trails cause an increase in crime. In fact, trail development may actually decrease the risk of crime in comparison to an abandoned and undeveloped rail corridor. Several studies show that most people prefer living along a rail trail rather than an abandoned corridor. Typically, lawful trail users serve as eyes and ears for the community, discouraging unlawful activity. Police patrols are typically conducted on the trail to discourage illegal activities and uses. See the following studies:  Rails to Trails   American Greenways Study

FAQ #14: Will being adjacent to the trail affect my property value?

ANSWER: Conversion of a rail corridor, an unattractive sight, into a trail enhances the adjoining and nearby properties by improving the appearance of the area. It also provides opportunities for safe non-motorized travel and for healthy exercise and recreation. Trails also have been shown to bolster property values and make adjacent properties easier to sell. In a 2002 survey of recent home buyers sponsored by the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders, trails ranked as the second most important community amenity out of a list of 18 choices. Studies of property values along trails show that lots adjacent to trails sell faster and for an average of 9% or more than similar properties not located next to trails See: Rails to Trails  National Parks Study . A 2011 article in The Atlantic Cities provides an interesting look at "How Much is a Trail Worth?" relative to nearby residential values.

FAQ #15: What about the privacy of those living near the trail?

ANSWER: According to a National Park Service study "The Impacts of Rail-Trails", most adjacent owners experience a minimal loss of privacy from the establishment of a rail-trail. Generally rail-trails have a thick row of already established trees and shrubs along their edges. In some cases, adjacent landowners have already taken steps to ensure their privacy from trains, passengers, train crews and other former corridor users. Often, trail design specifications will call for additional vegetative screening to be added to the trail corridor to protect privacy. Fencing is expensive and rarely necessary, although some landowners do erect fences, often with a gate so they can access the trail. Some rail-trail conversions face opposition from landowners living alongside or near the corridors. Lack of information and unanswered criticism of trail proposals usually fuel this opposition and lead to misconceptions, including confusion related to property rights issues, concerns that property values will drop and liability will increase, and fears of increased crime such as littering, trespassing, burglary and vandalism.  A large majority of trail opponents find that their fears about the trail never materialize. More on this subject can be found in a short RTC article offering 10 Tips for Dealing With Opposition by Neighbors.

FAQ #16: How do Rail-Trails Support Economic Development?

ANSWER: Trails and greenways provide countless opportunities for economic renewal and growth. Increased property values, tourism and recreation-related spending on items such as bicycles, in-line skates and lodging. In a 1992 study, the National Park Service estimated the average economic activity associated with three multi-purpose trails in Florida, California and Iowa was $1.5 million annually. A more recent (2007) study published by Rails-to-Trails provides brief looks at several rail trails and economic benefits resulting from each over time. A less quantitative but compelling article on the Swamp Rabbit Trail in S.C. cites numerous benefits to a small city stemming from a rail-trail.

FAQ #17: How do Rail-Trails Promote Healthy Living?

ANSWER: Many people realize exercise is important for maintaining good health in all stages of life; however many do not regularly exercise. The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that 60% of American adults are not regularly active and another 25% are not active at all. In communities across the country, people do not have access to trails, parks, or other recreation areas close to their homes. Trails and greenways provide a safe, inexpensive avenue for regular exercise for people living in rural, urban and suburban areas. A study by staff from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presents cost and usage documentation showing health costs savings far exceeding the long term costs of building and maintaining trails within the City of Lincoln, Nebraska. Trails and greenways help improve air and water quality. For example, communities with trails provide enjoyable and safe options for transportation, which reduces air pollution. By protecting land along rivers and streams, greenways prevent soil erosion and filter pollution caused by agricultural and road runoff. A March 2011 study in American Trails provides a nice discussion of how Greenville, SC's trail system is the key to a healthier community.

FAQ #18: How do Rail-Trails Preserve Our History and Culture? 

ANSWER: Trails and greenways have the power to connect us to our heritage by preserving historic places and by providing access to them. They can give people a sense of place. Trails and greenways can draw the public to historic sites. The rail lines themselves with their tunnels, buildings, and bridges are historic features. Rail-trails along historic rail corridors provide a glance at the importance of this mode of transportation. They preserve transportation corridors. Through their votes, thousands of Americans have said 'yes' to preserving open spaces, greenways, farmlands and other important habitat. During the 1998 election, voters in 44 states approved over 150 conservation-related ballot initiatives. Trails and greenways provide what many Americans seek - close to home recreational areas, community meeting places, historic preservation, educational experiences, natural landscapes and beautification.

FAQ #19: Have there been any rail reactivations of federally railbanked corridors?

Yes, but not many to date because the basis for railbanking is that there is no present need of nor need in the foreseeable future for rail use. However, the potential for such use in the indefinite future is secured. In 2009, the Assistant Director of the federal Surface Transportation Board, Anne K. Quinlan, stated that at that time there had been nine reactivations. See the American Trails site for more. The number of more recent reactivations’ has not been publicized. However, rail reactivation upon a Texas rail-trail has been reported. That rail-trail was reactivated for light rail use and was coupled with an attractive and safe adjacent multi-use trail. See the article and photos at the Rails to Trails Conservancy site. Restoration of rail service with an adjacent multi-use trail is a win-win situation.

FAQ #20: Have there been studies showing the economic benefits of rail-trails to local economies?

Yes, a number have been published. Most recently, PATH News, Volume 81, had a nice article on the Silver Comet Trail in the Atlanta area showing the Counties where this trail passes through realize ~$37,000,000 in economic benefits each year from related spending by trail users and tourists.

FAQ #21: Are Rails-with-Trails an Option for Developing a Recreational Trail on a Rail Corridor That is Active?

Yes, all over the U.S. the number of Rail-with-Trails (RWTs) have been developed and are being extensively used. Currently there are three rail-with-trails in North Carolina:

- Libba Cotten Trail, Carrboro
- Marcia Cloninger Rail-Trail, Lincolnton
- Charlotte Trolley Trail
A September 2013 report available on-line from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) presents a thorough discussion and presentation of the characteristics of RWTs in 88 existing rails-with-trails in 33 states, based on a survey of trail managers and the results of RTC’s ongoing study. It provides a collection of data, examples and practical tools to assist trail planners and advocates in increasing awareness of the rail-with-trail concept, and advancing local and state policies and practices that support rail-with-trail development. This report is usable on several levels--besides the numerous tables and analyses the report contains numerous images of  trail users enjoying these trails.