The key part is this:
The landowners argue that converting rail lines into recreational trails represents a new use of their property, one for which they are entitled to compensation from the government under the Fifth Amendment. To date, the courts have agreed, and plaintiffs lawyers predict the ultimate liability for taxpayers could top $500 million.
Those who support the program find the litigation explosion deeply troubling. "It's the perfect storm," said Andrea Ferster, general counsel of the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, who called a line of decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit supporting the takings claims "outrageous."
"The irony is that the U.S. doesn't even get a deed. At the end of the day, [the claimants] still get to keep the property," she said. partner Mark "Thor" Hearne II, who has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in contingent fees successfully representing property owners, agrees the system is flawed. "Why should U.S. taxpayers have to fund the acquisition of property the federal government doesn't even own?" he asked.
The whole thing is worth reading, even while it's troubling. The DC area has benefitted from many wonderful rail trails, and the program has been a big boon to active transportation and recreation. It would be a shame to see it curtailed. And of coures, the program serves other users too:
In Maryland, for example, a branch of the Capital Crescent Trail is slated for conversion to light-rail service.
Though the issue seemed to be settled back in 1990, the idea of takings and compensation came up a few years later.
What prompted the court to re-open the case is not clear. However, The Washington Post in 1998 reported that four of the six judges who went on to rule against the government had previously attended a free, five-day seminar at a resort in Montana that was underwritten by conservative foundations and focused on property rights and the environment.