Justia Transportation Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Zoning, Planning & Land Use
by
In 1958, the Northern Pacific Railroad physically abandoned the 20-mile segment outside of Noxon, Montana. Part of that segment runs through the Finnigan property, which is entirely within the boundaries of the Kanisku National Forest. Several landowners along the right of way sought a judicial decree of abandonment and ultimately gained title to their respective segments of the abandoned railway. The Finnigan property’s then-owner did not seek a judicial decree of abandonment. In 2018, the Finnigan Estate brought suit to quiet its title to the right of way across its property. The district court rejected the action on summary judgment.The Ninth Circuit affirmed. Northern Pacific stopped using the segment in 1958, but the railway was not formally declared abandoned before the 1988 enactment of the Rails-to-Trails Act, 6 U.S.C. 1248(c), so the United States retained its reversionary interest in the land. The Act provides that title “shall remain” with the U.S. for railroad rights-of-way abandoned after October 4, 1988, except to the extent that the right of way was converted to a public highway. To transfer rights-of-way to neighboring landowners, abandonment requires both physical abandonment and a judicial decree of abandonment. The judicial-decree requirement was not met when another parcel in the segment obtained a judicial decree of abandonment that did not cover the Finnigan property. View "Estate of Finnigan v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Skidmore’s West Virginia home sits 70-80 feet west of Norfolk’s railroad track, across Loop Creek. In 2001, Norfolk installed a culvert to drain surface water from its tracks into Loop Creek near Skidmore’s home. According to Skidmore, the water streaming from the culvert caused soil erosion and threatened the foundation of her home. Skidmore sued Norfolk in state court, alleging negligence, private nuisance, and trespass.Norfolk obtained a survey and deeds revealing that, in 1903, Norfolk obtained a right of way extending across Loop Creek, over part of the land on the other side. Part of Skidmore’s house sits atop the land over which the right of way runs. Norfolk asserted an affirmative defense that Skidmore lacked standing because she had no right to exclude Norfolk from the land. Skidmore amended her complaint to add claims for adverse possession and prescriptive easement (quiet title claims). Norfolk removed the case to federal court, arguing that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act completely preempts the quiet title claims. The district court dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.The Fourth Circuit vacated. While 49 U.S.C. 10501(b) “entirely displaces” Skidmore’s quiet title claims, a conclusion that complete preemption applies means that the court has jurisdiction over ostensibly state-law claims. On remand, the court must convert Skidmore’s quiet title claims into claims under the Termination Act and may permit Skidmore to amend her complaint to clarify the scope of her Termination Act claims. View "Skidmore v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co" on Justia Law

by
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”)’s petition seeking review of a Commonwealth Court holding that a de facto taking of an unmined coal estate, owned by Penn Pocahontas and leased to PBS Coals, Inc. (collectively “the Coal Companies”), occurred under the Eminent Domain Code, 26 Pa.C.S. sections 101-1106 (“Code”), when PennDOT’s construction of Highway 219 on an adjoining parcel destroyed options for constructing rights-of-ways to the coal estate’s surface. In reaching that conclusion, the Commonwealth Court held that the feasibility of mining the coal, as measured by the probability of obtaining a legally required permit from the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”), was relevant only to damages. The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision, agreeing with PennDOT that the legality of extracting the coal went directly to the trial court’s duty to determine whether a taking occurred. Furthermore, the Court held the Commonwealth Court erred by failing to remand the case for consideration of whether consequential damages are available to the Coal Companies. The matter was remanded to the Commonwealth Court with instructions to remand to the trial court with respect to the Coal Companies’ consequential damages claim. View "PBS Coals, et al v. PennDOT" on Justia Law

by
Caquelin's land was subject to a railroad easement. The Surface Transportation Board granted the railroad permission to abandon the line unless the process (16 U.S.C. 1247(d)) for considering the use of the easement for a public recreational trail was invoked. That process was invoked. The Board issued a Notice of Interim Trail Use or Abandonment (NITU), preventing effectuation of the abandonment approval and blocking the ending of the easement for 180 days, during which the railroad could try to reach an agreement with two entities that expressed interest in the easement for trail use. The NITU expired without such an agreement. The railroad completed its abandonment three months later.Caquelin sued, alleging that a taking occurred when the government, by issuing the NITU, prevented the termination of the easement during the 180-day period. Following a remand, the Claims Court again held that a taking had occurred. The Federal Circuit affirmed, rejecting the contention that the multi-factor approach adopted for government-created flooding in the Supreme Court’s 2012 “Arkansas Game” decision displaced the categorical-taking analysis adopted in Federal Circuit precedents for a NITU that blocks termination of an easement. The categorical taking analysis is applicable even when that NITU expires without a trail-use agreement. A NITU does not effect a taking if, even without a NITU, the railroad would not have abandoned its line during the period of the NITU. Here, the evidence permits a finding that abandonment would have occurred during the NITU period if the NITU had not issued. View "Caquelin v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff Enable Oklahoma Intrastate Transmission, LLC (“Enable”), appealed the district court’s dismissal of its case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to join an indispensable party. Enable also challenged the amount of attorney fees the court awarded to the landowner defendants. Because the Tenth Circuit’s decision in Public Service Company of New Mexico v. Barboan, 857 F.3d 1101 (10th Cir. 2017), was dispositive of the subject matter jurisdiction issue, the Court affirmed the district court’s order dismissing the action. View "Enable Oklahoma Intrastate v. 25 Foot Wide Easement" on Justia Law

by
Study of the I-69 extension between Evansville and Indianapolis began in 1944. The 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Act designated a new route from Indianapolis to Memphis,, via Evansville as a “high priority corridor” for development. As the project progressed, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) divided the project into two “tiers” for environmental analysis. After the plans were finalized, construction work on the six sections of Tier 2 began; 90 percent of the work on the extension is complete. The FHWA and Indiana Department of Transportation issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Tier 2, Section 4, in 2010. A Final Environmental Impact Statement and a Record of Decision issued in 2011. The agencies selected the final route and construction plan for Section 4 after reviewing 48 options and produced a record reflecting consideration of impact on historic sites, geological formations, and air-quality, among other factors. Pursuant to its obligations under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service engaged in consultation and issued a Biological Opinion regarding the possible impact of tree-clearing on the endangered Indiana bat. Opponents filed suit. After a lengthy period of inactivity by Plaintiffs, including several missed case management deadlines, the district court granted summary judgment upholding the approvals. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. View "Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads v. Foxx" on Justia Law

by
Abutting landowners claimed that the United States effected a taking of their property without just compensation when it converted a former railroad corridor between Sarasota and Venice, Florida, into a recreational trail pursuant to the National Trails System Act Amendments of 1983, 16 U.S.C. 1247(d), because deeds transferred by their predecessors-in-title to a railroad company granted only easements on their land for railroad purposes and, upon termination of the use of the land as a railroad, left the landowners unencumbered title and possession of their land. The Federal Circuit affirmed partial summary judgment in favor of the government, holding that the owners lacked a property right or interest in the land-at-issue because the railroad company, had obtained fee simple title to the land. The court noted that the state’s highest court has confirmed that, under Florida law, a railroad can acquire either an easement or fee simple title to a railroad right-of-way and that no statute, state policy, or factual considerations prevails over the language of the deeds when the language is clear; the language of the six deeds-at-issue clearly convey fee simple title on their face. View "Rogers v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiffs own land adjacent to central Iowa railway corridors. Pursuant to the National Trail System Act Amendments of 1982, the Surface Transportation Board issued Notices of Interim Trail Use (NITUs) for the corridors. NITUs “preserve established railroad rights-of-way for future reactivation of rail service” and permit the railroad operator to cease operation without legally abandoning any “rights-of-way for railroad purposes,” 16 U.S.C. 1247(d). The trial court found that but for issuance of the NITUs, the railway easements would have reverted to plaintiffs upon cessation of railroad operations, held that a taking occurred, and, focusing on parcels for which the highest and best use was farmland, used the “before and after” method to determine the value of the land subject to the easement. The court determined that the “before” state of the land should take into account the value of the land as it existed before the NITU easements, but ignore any physical remnants of the railway’s use, which would have remained if the railway easement had been permitted to lapse. The Federal Circuit vacated, holding that an appraiser must consider the value of a landowner’s property before the easement, which in this case includes the physical remnants of the railroad. View "Rasmuson v. United States" on Justia Law

by
About 100 years ago, the then-owners of land abutting a 2.88-mile stretch of rail corridor near the City of South Hutchinson, Kansas granted deeds covering that land to the predecessor of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF). The corridor was used by BNSF until 2004. It was then converted to a recreational trail pursuant to the National Trail Systems Act, 16 U.S.C. 1247(d). The current owners asserted that the conversion constituted a taking and sought compensation under the Fifth Amendment. The Court of Federal Claims entered summary judgment in favor of the government, finding that none of the plaintiffs possessed a fee-simple property interest in the land underlying the rail corridor that could be the subject of a taking because the land had been conveyed to the BNSF’s predecessor in fee simple and not by easements. The Federal Circuit affirmed in part, finding that some of the land was conveyed to the BNSF’s predecessor in fee simple, but that the railroad was only granted an easement over other land. With respect to others, the issue was clouded by chain-of-title questions. View "Biery v. United States" on Justia Law

by
The Federal Highway Administration and the Indiana Department of Transportation decided to complete an Indiana segment of I-69, which will eventually run from Canada to Mexico. Environmentalists opposed the route and sued under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1344, which authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to issue permits for discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters of the United States. A permit will be denied if there is “a practicable alternative to the proposed discharge which would have less adverse impact on the aquatic ecosystem,” 40 C.F.R. 230.10(a), or if the discharge “would be contrary to the public interest.” 33 C.F.R. 320.4(a)(1). The permit at issue allows six streams to be filled where the highway crosses them and permits destruction of wetlands. The environmentalists proposed, in the alternative, simply upgrading to federal interstate highway standards, and existing route. In an environmental impact statement, the Corps concluded that no less environmentally damaging alternative was practicable, that the project was not contrary to the public interest, that damage to wetlands would be modest and would be offset by creation of new wetlands. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges to the environmental analysis. View "Hoosier Envtl. Council, v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng'rs" on Justia Law