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Company's application reports no objection so far to railbanking

Bradon J. Smith, a Chicago-based attorney, paid a $4,600 fee via and formally launched the process on Wednesday that barring unexpected roadblocks should lead to federal regulators' approval of Blue Ridge Southern Railroad's request to railbank the 19-mile Hendersonville-to-Brevard corridor for the Ecusta Trail.

Rick D. Baden executive vice president and chief financial officer of Blue Ridge Southern Railroad, certified that no local traffic has moved over the line in at least two years, there is "no overhead traffic that cannot be rerouted over other lines" and there is no pending complaint objecting to cessation of service.

"Other than the intended trails use, no alternatives to the proposed abandonment appear reasonable, since the line has been inactive to local traffic for at least two years, and there is no foreseeable prospect that a need for rail service would re-emerge," Baden said.

On behalf of his railroad client, Smithstarting in January notified the National Park Service, the EPA, N.C. Departments of Administration, Environmental Quality, Agriculture and Consumer Services and Natural and Cultural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Henderson and Transylvania counties, the Land of Sky Regional Planning Organization, the French Broad MPO and other federal, state and local agencies of its plans to seek abandonment of the corridor and invited comments.

In accordance with the Surface Transportation Board's regulations, the railroad asked the agencies to identify potential effects on local and regional land-use plans and transportation plans, energy consumption and efficiency, air emissions and noise, water quality, wetlands and floodplains, endangered species and critical habitats, national and state parks, farmland and natural resources. In the responses contained in the railroad's applications — and many agencies had not responded as of the filing on Wednesday — none raised objections to the rail line abandonment request.

"The potential abandonment of this line paves the way so to speak for the development and construction of the proposed Ecusta Rail Trail," Tristan Winkler, executive director of the French Broad MPO, and Vicki Eastland, of the Land of Sky planning agency, said in response. "The completion of this rail trail will provide safer offroad connections for both pedestrians and cyclists between Brevard and Hendersonville. The Ecusta Rail Trail plays an important role in our regional vision for a safe and connected pedestrian and bicycle network as illustrate by its inclusion in several locally and regionally adopted plans, a few of these are listed below: Transylvania County Bicycle Plan, Hellbender Regional Trail Plan, Blue Ridge Bicycle Plan and the Transylvania County Comprehensive Transportation Plan.

The railroad said the line contains 15 bridges and none has supported train traffic since 2002.

"Blue Ridge has very little information about the bridges at this time, but it appears that each of the spans was constructed more than fifty years ago, though many are modest in size with small spans," Smith said in the application said. "Blue Ridge Southern Railroad  intends to leave the bridges intact, and, upon completion of an anticipated interim trail use (post-abandonment authorization), plans to transfer them to the trail sponsor for use as part of a public pathway for pedestrians along the subject railroad corridor.”

The federal railbanking statute allows railroad companies to remove all of its equipment from an abandoned corridor except for bridges, culverts and tunnels. County officials have said Blue Ridge may salvage the steel rails and ties for other use when it sells the corridor.

Chartered by the state of North Carolina in 1891, the Hendersonville and Brevard Railway, Telegraph and Telephone Company was the first operator of what became known as the Ecusta rail line and was not a financially successful one. The Transylvania Railroad Co. acquired the rail line out of the foreclosed assets of Hendersonville and Brevard railroad company and leased it to Southern Railway Co. in 1906. Norfolk Southern Railway Co. became the owner of the line when it acquired Southern Railway and Southern's affiliated Transylvania Railroad Company in 1982. Norfolk Southern owned the rail corridor until Kansas-based Watco bought the line in 2014, forming Blue Ridge Southern Railroad to operate the shortline freight routes it acquired in and around Asheville.

In a legal notice published March 24, the railroad company said the Office of Environmental Analysis of the Surface Transportation Board "will generally prepare an Environmental Assessment, which will become available 25 days after the filing of the notice of exemption. Comments on environmental and energy matters should be filed no later than 15 days after the EA becomes available to the public and will be addressed in a Board decision. Interested persons may obtain a copy of the EA or make inquiries regarding environmental matters by writing to OEA, Surface Transportation Board, Washington, DC 20423 or by calling OEA at 202-245-0295."

Established in 1983 as an amendment to the National Trails System Act, railbanking is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. The interim use of railbanked corridors for trails has preserved thousands of miles of rail corridors that would otherwise have been abandoned, the Rails to Trails Conservancy says. In the case of the Ecusta Trail, the parties driving the project — including Henderson County, the cities of Hendersonville and Laurel Park and the Friends of Ecusta Trail — designated Conserving Carolina as the entity to take ownershp of the corridor.

Conserving Carolina and Blue Ridge Southern Railroad reached an agreement on Oct. 27 for the purchase of the 19-mile segment of tracks for the bicycle and pedestrian greenway. The North Carolina Board of Transportation awarded a $6.4 million grant in 2019 toward the purchase of the rail corridor and last year the French Broad MPO awarded $5 million to fund construction of the first 5¾ miles of the greenway. In addition, the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority has banked $500,000 from the county lodging tax to support the trail and the Transylvania County Tourism Board of Directors voted last year to pitch in $100,000. The Henderson County Board of Commissioners provided the last crucial boost when it agreed to a $7 million bridge loan to close the purchase.