On Friday, July 16th, Governor Baker signed the FY2022 budget which included sweeping funding and policy measures that will impact all of the Commonwealth. Included in this budget is a little known, yet crucially important, piece of policy that will help the state build its rail-trail network, specifically helping municipalities fund the acquisition of rights of ways by allowing them to use Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding to purchase federally rail banked rail corridors for the development of trails. CPA funds are municipal taxes collected to be directed by City or Town committees and to be used for the purposes of creating affordable housing, funding historic preservation, and supporting open space for communities. Rail-trails, of course, fall into the category of open space. And this change to the CPA law would clarify that, if a municipality were to choose, they can use CPA funds to acquire rail right-of-way corridors.
This slight clarification of the CPA funding usage is absolutely key in a few places in the commonwealth where municipalities have the intention to spend their own CPA dollars to acquire rail-trail corridors but have faced challenges from opposing arguments using the fact that most rail-trail rights of ways are transferred over with long-term leases (perhaps 99 years) and not in perpetuity, since the National Trails System Act of 1983 stipulated railbanking as 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. This interim trail use of railbanked corridors has preserved thousands of miles of rail corridors that would otherwise have been abandoned, however opponents to rail-trails claim that in the rare case a corridor could, by law, convert back to rail use, then CPA funds can be challenged for this use. However, this has not once happened in Massachusetts where a rail-trail corridor has converted back to rail use.
And as land from rail trails usually comes together in a piecemeal fashion, it’s more of putting together a massive puzzle with pieces placed incongruously throughout the state, which is a difficult task considering the large number of landowners, abutters, and jurisdictions that these corridors impact. A rail-trail network and route is only as good as its weakest link, even if we have 110-miles of a trail planned out, such as the case with the Mass Central Rail Trail which will eventually go from Boston to Northampton, just one missing puzzle piece means we don’t have a contiguous and connected network.