Answers to Common Questions Regarding Railroad Abandonment  

The following is provided by the Ferry County Rail Trail Partners. Local residents asked the questions, and we have attempted to provide the most accurate answers possible. The answers are not intended to be considered legal advice.


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“What is rail banking anyway?”

Rail banking is a federal law administered by the Surface Transportation Board (STB). It allows public agencies to acquire railroad right-of-ways from an operating railroad and, “bank,” it until future rail use is applied for at the STB. The purchasing agency has all the property rights held by the railroad including easements for rail use. The line is thus not officially abandoned, and irreplaceable infrastructure is preserved.

Railroads have taxes to pay, and lines to maintain. It often makes good economic sense to rail bank an unused line, salvage the ties, rail, and other equipment, and work something out with an agency wishing to utilize the corridor until such time that any railroad reactivates the line with a request to the STB. If the corridor is not saved, there cannot be any future rail. In the interim, the corridor can be used as a trail, which helps preserve it.

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“Why are the FerryCounty Commissioners having, “secret meetings,” to do this?”

They have not had, “secret,” meetings. Their meeting agenda is posted and available according to the public meetings act. When they must periodically enter a closed session to discuss sensitive things such as county personnel issues, or possible real estate acquisition issues for example, they are operating well within RCW42.30.110, the law governing executive sessions within public meetings.

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“Why not just keep the rail until we have a shipper in a year or so?”

The railroad made no profit from this line for well over two years & so was totally within the law in seeking to abandon the line. That was not the counties decision—it was theirs. The agency governing this decision, the STB in Washington D.C. has said the railroad may remove the rails, ties, & switching equipment, but must leave the ballast rock in place and undisturbed. This was partly due to the “public use/trail use condition,” Ferry County was granted by the STB, on the corridor.

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“So why wouldn’t the land just revert to the original or current owners?”

The railroad claims it owns fee interest as well as federally granted interests in the corridor. These do not just, “revert.” Federal law also favors preserving railroad corridors for continued public use. At common law, railroads are public highways.

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“The adjoining property owners should have a chance to buy it back.”

Federal law views rail corridors as natural resources and assets worth preserving so long as this can be done without burdening the railroads or their shippers.

As was mentioned at the first public meeting, the railroad has no interest in trying to deal with individual adjoining landowners, regarding the corridor. What most likely would have resulted (had there been a way to do this) would have been a patchwork of some sections being purchased and some not. This would have created a nightmare for adjoining landowners of weeds, illegal dumpsites, etc which has occurred elsewhere when a few early abandoning rail lines attempted to do just that. Historically that has not been a good choice.

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“Why not ask the RR to work a deal with us & we will all give them an easement to use later if they wish?”

There is no, “track record,” of private easements preserving a rail corridor. The property simply gets broken up and built on if only an easement exists. When the County Commissioners considered that possibility (as many along the corridor suggested it), it was discovered that:

  • Railroads are not interested in having only easements for future use, and

  • Railbanking has been implemented very successfully elsewhere on numerous occasions.

These discoveries may well have led the Commissioners to conclude that the most prudent course of action would be to railbank the corridor. When our County Commissioners make choices, they must consider what the potential economic impact of their choices may be. We suspect that in this case, they realized that a mere easement would eliminate the entire future rail option, which did not seem reasonable to them. The Ferry County Rail Trail Partners would have to agree.

For those of you who may not know, the Ferry County Commissioners wanted very much to find a shipper and keep the rails down. When it became apparent that would not happen, the next most beneficial and economical use of the rail corridor became to preserve it for continued public use and/or future rail use. Any other choice represents a false economy as anything else means losing it forever. If it were lost, with it would be lost any hope of a railroad ever returning to this side of Ferry County.

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“Fine-rail bank the corridor but skip the trail.”

The track record for trails is that they are not burdensome but instead enhance property values and desirability. If the rail corridor is to be preserved, a surface use like a trail is one of the least burdensome uses to employ, and this kind of surface use markedly helps keep the corridor intact.

In addition, a trail is part of the definition of rail banking. The 1983 Congressional act authorizing rail banking was an amendment to the National Trail System Act. Having the corridor available for utilities installation, and a simple, non-motorized trail via rail banking provides a larger community benefit in the interim.

Already the public has expressed great interest in a non-motorized trail on the corridor. An ever-increasing number of local residents and many out-of-towners who plan to travel here just to use such a non-motorized trail have expressed support.

It is essential to preserve the rail corridor for future reactivation as a rail line and the tool to do that is rail banking. Allowing public utilities to be installed on the corridor is a bonus benefit, as is a trail. The trail will not happen overnight and will need much input from everyone, especially the landowners nearest to it to ensure Ferry County ends up with something we can all live with and enjoy.

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“It (the trail) is a pig in a poke and will cost each and every resident of the county.”

If Ferry County chooses to make the corridor a county trail then the county will have to choose to put money into it via a junior taxing district for example, which would be voted upon. If it is not handled this way then it will not cost, “each and every resident of the county.” As for other costs to county residents, the county will lose the current tax revenue amount due to the railroad abandoning and pulling up the rails, ties and switching equipment, which are a large part of the current value that revenue is based upon. Since our taxing districts are near or at the max they can be assessed already, the county is not likely to have any way to make up for the lost revenue. This may result in a loss of services - not a tax increase. This will occur regardless since the railroad is pulling up those tracks.

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“Do you really expect us to believe that a railroad will ever come back here?”

Is the United States growing or shrinking? Is Washington State growing or shrinking? According to the Census Bureau, the population of the United States is growing at one percent per year. The Inland Northwest is experiencing a higher growth rate than that. This will creep towards Ferry County, indeed it already has. Ferry County must do all it can to preserve infrastructure to prepare for this growth. If we do not preserve the corridor, we can be certain there will not be a railroad here again.

Think: Economics, economics, economics.

Economics 1: Ferry County has always been prone to economic cycles. The first gold rush peaked, began to die out and the railroad arrived to rescue it. Since then until recently, logging, mining, and even ranching to a degree have all gone through cycles. Before we could recover from the recent low of Vaagen’s Mill leaving, the railroad has decided to go. If we are ever to have heavy industry in Ferry County, we must maintain the possibility of a railroad.

Economics 2: Even without a railroad, the corridor can provide the utilities installation benefit. Curlew has already expressed interest in it for sewer lines. Curlew Lake is polluted enough to be on the State 303d list and construction on its west side may require community sewer lines in the future. The corridor is perfect for other utilities too.

Economics 3: The national economy and especially the west are moving toward more recreation as an economic driver. This corridor, from Republic to the Canadian border is as beautiful as anywhere in the west. Many already visit & recreate here, and the more attractions we can develop, the more opportunities visitors have to leave money here.

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“Won’t a trail cost a lot of money to build? Where will that money come from?”

There are many sources for that money, both public and private. Industry, military, and service organizations often donate labor and equipment for construction. It is impossible to tell exactly how a trail can be built until you try. Just because a government organization acquires a rail corridor through rail banking does not mean the trail will be built immediately. Many trails remain in relatively unimproved condition for many years. They are obviously not suitable for inline skating or wheelchairs. Mostly walkers, hikers, and horseback riders would use them. Keeping the trail non-motorized also means it will cost far less to build and maintain over the long term.

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“Grants might build the trail but where will the operational and maintenance support come from 5-10 years down the line? It would take a great amount of facts and figures to convince me that the trail would generate any income for the county.”

We are examining these issues and will provide figures on this site as we get them. We are trying to examine trails that approximate our situation, and while nothing will be identical, we can tell you that trails on the west side are not high on our list for comparison. In cases we’ve begun to examine, rail trails are providing an integral piece of rural communities tourism dollars, in addition to providing immense local benefits. They appear to be a welcome piece of the puzzle of rural community survival in the west.

We have found that communities containing a rail trail see higher adjoining property values almost immediately. In addition, properties with trail access nearby also become more desirable, because proximity to a trail is perceived to be an additional benefit that can make the difference between a prospective buyer choosing that home and another similar home farther from trail access. This translates into value when one considers the time it may take to sell homes in some rural counties, including Ferry County.

Each trail situation is different and the measure of success depends somewhat upon the attitude of county residents as we go forward. Other rail/trail projects have paid off very well, while some have just paid off or broke even. All have provided significant non-monetary payoffs that are tough to put a dollar value on.

When a community enjoys a trail right through the middle of it, with easy access for much of it’s length, more people get out and move each day---health improves, attitudes lift, and people begin to enjoy another way to be part of the community. For example, medical providers in rail trail communities have told of increased exercise rates in their patients (which the patients have told them are a result of having easy, direct access to a gentle grade, approachable by many who otherwise have stayed on the couch). As you can see, some of the pay-offs we are finding are not easy to measure in monetary terms.

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“I don’t think you can rely on the support or labor of many adjacent landowners to take care of future maintenance issues of any trail project.

It is not widely known that a non-motorized trail requires far less money, maintenance, operations, and policing (than a motorized trail), which is one of many reasons why the Ferry County Rail Trail Partner’s position is for a non-motorized trail. From the experience of other rail trail managers, non-motorized trails are much less labor intensive to maintain. Ongoing maintenance will be a slightly different prospect than some envision. This is especially true with trails that are built on well-maintained railroad corridors with excellent beds of rail ballast already in place.

Local volunteers and trail user groups (rather than adjoining landowners) often do much of the basic maintenance, very much like the, “adopt a highway,” cleanups. Quite often local businesses that will benefit from a trail will adopt a section and maintain it in exchange for a well-placed sign stating their involvement.

There are governmental and private funds available for some of the ongoing maintenance that will occasionally be needed. Unlike some other types of civic projects, that may only be eligible for, “start-up,” grants rail trails may be continually eligible for grants from a wide variety of sources both public and private. Ferry County Rail Trail Partners (and we hope the county) will be very cautious about which types of grants we apply for in terms of what strings are attached. It may take longer to complete the trail this way, but options for continual maintenance grants will not be as limited either.

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“…At the last town meeting our assessor stated that the loss of taxable property would be minimal so let’s just save it for the future. Let’s just let it turn into an unused and non-maintained strip of land which does not generate any income for our county.” “… I think the right of way should go into the federal rail bank …but should remain fallow.”

On the contrary, the corridor will be a nightmare to maintain if it is not put into trail use. If it is left, “fallow,” it will become a, “defecto,” or, “feral,” trail without any funding stream available and/or volunteer non-profit group working together with the county to maintain it. One of the best ways to prevent untoward acts on the corridor is to have users that are concerned about the trail. Hikers, bicyclists, and horse-back riders are typically such users, but many who ride all terrain vehicles and dirt bike riders are not.

A good plan and a carefully developed trail will preserve and protect the corridor and the essential ballast, for future rail use. In addition a trail with rules and enforceable regulations will be far more beneficial and less costly in the long run.

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“The plans seem to have progressed without much public input. Why wasn’t this presented earlier?”

The actual process has really just gotten started. After a year or so of talking about abandoning, the railroad filed their request with the STB early last summer. The County asked the STB for the, “public use/trail use,” condition on the abandonment to ensure they preserved the negotiating option with the railroad. The STB released their decision on the abandonment in mid-December. That decision says the railroad may remove the rails, ties, and switching equipment but leave the ballast beneath undisturbed, in part because of the public use condition they granted Ferry County. Until that decision, the whole thing was not much more than rumors as far as the County Commissioners were concerned. They scheduled the first public meeting for mid January but had to postpone until February 20 when they realized the location had to be moved to a larger space. That space was the multi-purpose room at the Republic School Complex. This is likely where subsequent public meetings on the issue will be held also. You will find meeting notices on the main page of this site when they become available, in addition to however the county must post notices of such meetings.

At the February 20 meeting, at least eighty-nine (89) people signed in. While those that were against rail banking did speak up often, there were far more there that were for the counties efforts to both rail bank and create a trail. In fact, out of the seventy-one (71) written comments received after the meeting, only twelve (12) were against the trail, and a smaller handful were against rail banking, Of the fifty-nine (59) for rail banking and the trail, there were less than five for a motorized trail and many of the rest indicated non-motorized was their choice. This was a good turnout for a meeting of this kind, and we hope to see even higher attendance at the next meeting.

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“What sort of rules will be in place between the time the railroad leaves and the trail begins?”

The rules will likely be more stringent than rules for a developed trail. The rules would have to be developed in consult with county officials, adjoining landowners, interested citizens, and managers of similar trails. A number of local and regional trail user groups have offered to help including our neighbors to the north across the Canadian Border. We welcome constructive participation in both the planning and implementation phases of the trail. Working together with those who have done this before, those interested in building and maintaining the trail and those next to the trail will allow the most positive outcome for all involved with, or effected by the trail.

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“Well, I go hiking myself & I pack a lunch at home & drive my gas economy Toyota pick-up there & don’t stay in a motel & don’t leave much money there either.”

You and others who live in our beautiful county do not have to drive great distances to take a nature hike. Millions of others do, and our local resorts, motels, and campgrounds are full most of the summer and much of the spring and fall with those folks. Each visitor represents tourism dollars; some spend less than others do but they all leave money in Ferry County. A non-motorized trail on this corridor will receive national advertising and the number of tourists will grow with it. It is possible that as more tourists arrive, local accommodations will wish to expand, providing another economic benefit to the county. Bicycle groups often rent large areas (such as our local fairground camping area and carousel building) for organized events and camping, which may provide another source of revenue for the fair association.

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“And who is going to watch the cross walks that the county is going to have to install & pay for?”

Where the existing railroad crossings are, they will likely be replaced by two yellow lines and two stop signs, telling trail users to stop, look both ways, and proceed with caution. We hope the state and county road departments might be willing to repaint the yellow lines when they repaint the roads.

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“Who cleans up the trash?”

People who tend to patronize non-motorized trails tend to create very little trash...and signs indicating a, “pack it in--pack it out,” approach work fairly well in other locations. There might need to be particular locations along the trail where some limited trash disposal may be provided---and local volunteer groups like those who adopt a highway will certainly be called upon to do seasonal pick up, in exchange for signs indicating their support of the trail. These and other issues will be worked out in the planning phase.

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“Who is responsible for fires?”

People who patronize non-motorized trails are very seldom smokers. Fires will of course not be allowed along the trail except in designated camping areas, if there are any. This is another example of something that is worked out during the planning phase. Note: The chance of a fire getting started by an overheated bearing on an operating railroad is greater than a bicyclist starting a fire. Fires would be handled just as they are now, by local and if applicable, federal fire agencies.

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“Are we going to have another Blain (sic) here at Danville...complete with emigrants, smugglers, and a well-marked trail across the border complete with rest stops & relief stations? Are we supposed to report when smugglers come through, or back door emigrants?”

The trail will not cross the border. It will divert to the existing border station and the border patrol will control crossings just as they normally do. A wide-open visible trail with no bushes to hide behind would be a very foolish pathway for a smuggler.

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“I don’t want to have bright lights and loud engines running up & down the trail at all hours of the night.”

A trail would undoubtedly have hours of operation, for example, perhaps sunrise to sunset—setting those hours is part of the trail planning process. If you hear engines running on a non-motorized trail, please call the sheriff; they are breaking the law. On motorized vehicle trails, those responsible for making that trail motorized will have to provide ongoing funding to pay for the additional maintenance, repair, & policing needed for such trails. In addition to being extremely intrusive to neighboring landowners, motorized trails have a well-documented history of being abused; including trespassing and subsequent damage to neighboring landowners property; causing erosion and weed problems; and making general trail maintenance much more frequent and costly.

This in addition to motorized trails needing funding for far more consistent policing than they typically get, are just a few reasons why the Ferry County Rail Trail Partners mission is to create a non-motorized trail on this corridor.

Please be clear, the Ferry County Rail Trail Partners are not against all motorized trails. On the contrary, motorized trails have a place and many people enjoy them. We recognize that. This corridor, being along the valley floor, next to homes, livestock, and waterfront vacation retreats is not the place for motorized vehicles. This trail will have a gentle grade and be accessible to non-motorized users of many different skill levels. It needs to be an enjoyable, quiet link to our communities and to each other.

The Ferry County Rail Trail will take a lot of planning & much effort from many different people. Once the county gets the corridor rail banked, we can all more fully weigh in & get started!

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