WASHINGTON, March 10 (UPI) -- Thanks to publicly-funded "rails to trails" programs, thousands of miles of bike paths have been constructed alongside railroad tracks no longer serviced by trains.
The federal government continues to claim land rights to tracks-cum-trails via easements negotiated when the federal government was building tracks across the country during the latter half of the 19th century.
The government has maintained that when railroads cease using such land, ownership of right-of-way acreage reverts to the feds. But the Supreme Court decided today that those easements expired when the railroads went out of business, and that land rights should revert to the private landowner.
Justices ruled 8 to 1 against the federal government, in the case of Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. U.S. The case against the feds was brought by Wyoming landowner Marvin Brandt, whose 83-acre property is dissected by old railroad tracks.
The lone disputer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- quickly becoming a young rebel on the aging court -- said the flawed ruling sets a dangerous precedent. It also reverses several decisions by district and appeals courts.
"The court undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation," Sotomayor said in her dissent. "Lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."
"Thousands of claims pertaining to 1875 Act rights-of-way have been filed," the Justice Department said in a court brief. "The United States will be obligated to pay just compensation on many claims in which ownership of the right-of-way is often a determining factor."
Bike path advocate group Rails-to-Trails Conservancy said the ruling will "threaten existing rail-trails across America that utilize federally-granted rights-of-way."
"Disappointing news today: the court has ruled the U.S. doesn't have a reversionary interest in the right of way in question," the group announced in a brief release.