Local government agencies and the National Park Service are trying to ward off unwanted development along railroad tracks running from Silver Spring to Georgetown that the Chessie Systems Railroad wants to abandon.
Representatives of the government agencies and the park service met this week to discuss ways to acquire the rail-line right of way after the Interstate Commerce Commission last week scuttled hopes that the rail company could be required to turn over the property for use as a public hiking and biking trail.
Park service and local officials, as well as owners of homes near the right of way who fear the land will be sold to developers to build commercial and residential buildings, had hoped provisions of a 1983 amendment to the National Trails System Act could be used to mandate transfer of the property to a public or private agency willing to operate it as a trail.
The park service said it still hopes to find a way to convert part of the right of way to recreational use, while Montgomery County officials said they are exploring ways to buy a portion of the property for a cross-county transit system and biking trail.
The 10-mile stretch of land passes through prime commercial areas in Montgomery County in parcels that are large enough to make them attractive to developers, according to Glenn S. Orlin, a Montgomery County transportation planner. The ICC ruling that railroads cannot be compelled to transfer land to groups that will maintain it as trails leaves the railroad free to sell the property, perhaps before Montgomery officials can make an offer. Orlin said the county cannot complete its planning and decision-making process until next May at the earliest.
The Chessie has not applied formally to the ICC, which must approve changes in railroad service, for permission to abandon the rail spur, but has told the agency it plans to file an application, according to Louis E. Gitomer, deputy director of the ICC rail section.
The Chessie System uses the spur to deliver coal to a General Services Administration heating plant at 29th and K Sts. NW in Georgetown. The plant provides heat for 120 government buildings, including the Smithsonian Institution and the State Department, and steam for restaurants in the federal buildings, according to GSA. A Chessie official said recently that the rail line loses money and the rumbling trains detract from the scenery around the nearly completed Washington Harbour condominium and office complex on the Georgetown waterfront, which is partly owned by CSX Corp., the railroad's parent company.
The company has proposed using 30 or more trucks a day to deliver the coal from its Bladensburg rail yard through the city via New York Avenue and K Street, according to federal and city officials.
Although GSA has not decided what recommendations it will make to the ICC about the Chessie's plan, coal for the plant already is being trucked into the city. GSA spokeswoman Becky Rhodes said the agency does not know how many trucks a day are being used, or what route they are taking.
"It is my understanding that we have permission from the ICC to use the trucks, said Robert H. Tucker, a CSX vice president. He said the company has not "valued the property yet. We normally don't do that until abandonment is approved."
The decision to leave land-transfer decisions up to the railroad companies is a boon to the industry, which has been halting service on thousands of miles of track annually in recent years, and disposing of between 35,000 and 70,000 acres of land along the abandoned tracks, according to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which supports use of the property for trails.
Regulations reflecting the ICC decision will be drafted within the next two months, according to the ICC's Gitomer.
The trails act amendment, which the ICC regulations will implement, is intended to provide for interim use of rights of way as trails while preserving the tracks for possible use in the future, according to Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.), chairman of the House subcommittee on national parks and recreation.
Vento's view is that the amendment requires the ICC to provide for transfer of rights of way to groups -- usually state or local agencies or private organizations -- willing to assume tax and legal responsibility and manage the property as a trail. In a letter sent to ICC Chairman Reese H. Taylor Jr. earlier this month, the congressman questioned whether the regulations as proposed, and since approved, "satisfy this objective."
An ICC attorney told the commissioners before their vote on the regulations that the amendment is "ill-thought-out legislation" that raises "serious constitutional questions" about taking property from the railroads or from owners of property adjacent to the rights of way when railroads have easements.
"The statute doesn't say the ICC can take property" and cannot be interpreted as delegating condemnation authority to the agency, Gitomer said.
Conservationists have sided with Vento. They also have argued that in many cases the property was given to the railroad companies, which should not expect to make big profits from sale of the land. Federal and state governments gave railroads 178 million acres of land for tracks and commercial development between 1850 and 1871, according to the NWF.
"Although the abandonment of unused track makes financial sense to the railroad industry, the destruction of valuable trailways made from converted rights of way , many of them donated by the American public in the first place, simply doesn't make common sense," the NWF said.
The park service and conservation groups said they are concerned about the effect of the decision on the Georgetown rail spur. John Blair, an official with the park service's Washington-area office, said the agency plans to talk to railroad officials about the future of the estimated three miles of right of way that pass next to or through the C&O Canal National Historic Park and hopes "the railroad will see its way clear to donate" the land to the federal government.
Montgomery County, which for years has been troubled by the lack of an adequate cross-county road or rail link, would like to use the stretch of Chessie track that runs from Silver Spring to Bethesda for a trolley or bus transit system, Orlin said. Metro subway riders who want to go from one side of the county to the other now must travel the Red Line loop through downtown, he said. The county also will study the possibility of using part of the right of way as a bike path, he said.
Montgomery planners have received a $28,000 federal grant to hire engineering consultants who will formulate "concept plans" and devise cost estimates for use of the Chessie tracks. But the Chessie may not wait until the county finishes its planning, Orlin said. When told a decision cannot be made until next spring, a company representative "groaned," saying the company would like to sell the property sooner, Orlin said. In 1983, the railroad sold property west of Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda to developer Roger W. Eisinger Jr. and retains an easement so trains can run through the land.
Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission planners also are working on cross-county transit system plans.