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Railroad begins process to abandon corridor for Ecusta Trail

Blue Ridge Southern Railroad plans to file a notice with federal authorities that will lead to the abandonment of the 19.1-mile stretch of tracks that would become the Ecusta Trail, according to a legal notice.

The notification by the current owner of the rail line, which was published in the Hendersonville Lightning last week, said that the company plans to file a "notice of exemption" with the Surface Transportation Board in Washington, D.C., on or about Monday, April 5. The tracks covered are from Milepost 0.7 (about a tenth of a mile northeast of the South Main Street grade crossing to Milepost 19.8 (at the end of the track approximately two-tenths of a mile west of Lamb Creek in Pisgah Forest. Official abandonment of the tracks is a crucial step that must be approved by the Surface Transportation Board before the line can be "railbanked" for a use other than trains.

The legal notice 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."

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. In August 2019 the North Carolina Board of Transportation awarded a $6.4 million grant toward the purchase of the rail corridor and a year later the French Broad MPO awarded $5 million to fund construction of the first 5¾ miles of the greenway. The Henderson County Tourism Development Authority has earmarked $500,000 from the county lodging tax to support the trail and the Transylvania County Tourism Board of Directors voted in March to pitch in $100,000 for the project. The Henderson County Board of Commissioners provided the last financial contribution when it agreed to a $7 million bridge loan to close the purchase. Conserving Carolina officials said they expected to repay the $7 million before the county's fiscal year ends on June 30.

Established in 1983, railbbanking is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail organization to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a greenway until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. The rail corridor abandonment process begins with the initial notification to the Surface Transportation Board, which is what Blue Ridge Southern Railroad said it would file next week.

Although there have been challenges to the constitutionality of the railbanking provisions of the National Trails System Act, the process was upheld  in a 1990 Supreme Court case, the Rails to Trails Conservancy said on its website. In Preseault v. United States, the court ruled that "preserving a corridor for future rail use through railbanking is a legitimate exercise of governmental power," the conservancy said.