STB rules that New York county can build a rail trail; pro-rail group says legal questions remain

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KINGSTON, N.Y. — The Surface Transportation Board has ruled that a former New York Central branch line was indeed abandoned in the 1970s and that it can be ripped up and replaced with a rail trail. But rail advocates in upstate New York say more legal questions surround the NYC’s former Ulster & Delaware route that has been at the center of a longstanding dispute between a tourist railroad and a county.

In January, the U&D Railway Revitalization Corp., a non-profit group organized in 2016 to advocate for the preservation of the rail line, filed a motion with the STB seeking a declaratory judgement to determine if Ulster County had the right to rip up 11.5 miles of rail along the Ashokan Reservoir to make way for a trail. The rails were ripped up earlier this year. The county argued the railroad was formally abandoned years ago but U&D Railway Revitalization Corp. officials say that is not the case and accused local officials of using “inadequate and misleading information” that was out of date.

A core tenet of the rail group’s argument was that if the county is right and the rail line was indeed abandoned in the past, they could not create a rail trail using the National Trails Act and instead would have to start from scratch purchasing easements from individual landowners for the proposed trail along the reservoir.

On June 28, the STB ruled that documents showed that the rail line had indeed been abandoned in 1977 and because of that the federal board has no oversight over the now-abandoned right-of-way. The ruling also notes that since the line is abandoned, National Trails Act funds cannot be used in turning it into a trail. The Trail Act only allows federal dollars to be used to turn a rail line into a trail while simultaneously keeping it available for future use as a rail line as opposed to simply abandoning it, according to the STB filing. The county took possession of the rail line in 1979.

Ulster County officials hailed the STB decision as a victory. County Executive Michael Hein tells the Daily Freeman that the decision is “another important step in balancing our commitment to history and tourism train operations with exciting new opportunities such as rail bikes through Rail Explorers and a breathtaking rail trail along the Ashokan Reservoir.”

Officials with the U&D Railway Revitalization Corp. say that the STB’s ruling shows that the county did not do enough to ensure that the line had been abandoned prior to ripping the track up and that National Trail Funds cannot be used to turn the route into a trail. They say they will continue to challenge the county on its plan to turn the line into a trail.
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