The Shepherd Industrial Branch at Good Luck Road.

DC has gone back and forth on the planned Anacostia streetcar, first planning to run it in an unused CSX right-of-way, then switching to a street alignment, then moving the alignment. If DC instead took advantage of “railbanking,” they could still run the streetcar on the CSX line, build a streetcar more cheaply than the current street alignment, and give Anacostia a valuable transit link.

Railbanking allows cities and states to preserve unused rail corridors. Over the last 100 years, railroads have abandoned over 100,000 miles of rail corridors. Once these corridors are gone, they’re difficult or even impossible to reestablish. In the The National Trails System Act, Congress set up “railbanking” to preserve these corridors in case railroads need them again. In the interim, the corridor can be used as a trail, or for transit with a trail. “Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager without reverting to adjacent landowners.” Railbanking has led to the creation of over 2,000 miles of trail (and 1,700 miles in development), including the Capital Crescent Trail. And, in a few cases, it has saved rail corridors that eventually returned to service.

Earlier this month the Surface Transportation Board (STB) had a hearing on the success and failures of the first 25 years of railbanking. Marianne Fowler, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s senior vice president of federal relations, explained that under the statute, if transit is added to a railbanked corridor, the trail has to also remain. Landowners or others can petition the STB to revoke a railbanked corridor’s status “if they believe that a trail sponsor has o intent of using a right-of-way as a trail.” If the Board agrees, they can declare the right-of-way “fully abandoned,” which would make the property revert to landowners with underlying rights.

But as long as the corridor contains a trail, it can also include a light rail line or even a highway. In the case of the Purple Line, the State of Maryland is legally required to build the Capital Crescent Trail alongside the light rail. Otherwise, someone could, and probably would, petition the STB to declare the right of way abandoned.

This also serves as a potential remedy to the Anacostia Streetcar problem. Originally, plans called for the streetcar to run along the unused (not technically abandoned) CSX right-of-way from Pennsylvania Avenue SE to Bolling Air Force Base, with a possible extension up to the Minnesota Avenue Metro. But the District called off negotiations when it turned out that CSX didn’t own the underlying rights to the land, known as the Shepherd Industrial Branch or Shepherd Branch (sometimes also spelled Shepard). Then, having promised Anacostia a streetcar, the District began work on a streetcar line that would run from the Air Force Base to the Anacostia Metro in the street and with traffic. When the Council pointed out that the streetcar didn’t really connect any people, DDOT moved it to run from South Capitol Street to the intersection of MLK and Good Hope. That’s what they’re working on now.

But if DDOT can still work out a deal with CSX, they can go back to the original plan, this time by railbanking the ROW instead of just buying it. DDOT had already planned to build light rail with a parallel trail and the ~50 foot wide ROW has room for both. There is one place where the ROW narrows, but that isn’t impossible to get around. The Purple Line, by comparison, needs 36 feet of width for the rail. All DDOT would need to do is ensure that they build the trail and allow for the extremely rare possibility that freight rail service is one day reestablished. If they do that, they can railbank the ROW and it won’t matter who owns the underlying land. The transit line could then run parallel to the one planned, but in its own ROW, with a few at-grade crossings, instead of with traffic. And, it would include a trail. It could still operate between the Air Force Base and the Minnesota Avenue Metro, or across the new South Capitol Street Bridge, or both.

DC would get a better transit option and a trail, CSX dumps some unwanted property and easements for more than they’re worth when separated, and one rail corridor avoids disappearing entirely.