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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Railways could become international bike trail

‘Railbanking’ saves transportation infrastructure

A portion of a railroad running from Grand Forks, British Columbia, to Kettle Falls, Wash., has been declared for sale or abandonment. (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
A portion of a railroad running from Grand Forks, British Columbia, to Kettle Falls, Wash., has been declared for sale or abandonment. (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

A portion of a railroad running from Grand Forks, B.C., to Kettle Falls, Wash., has been declared for sale or abandonment.

While the action could cost the area jobs and raise freight transportation issues, it also opens the possibility of developing the nation’s first international rail trail.

OmniTrax Inc. recently announced that if the Kettle Falls International Railway couldn’t be sold in the next six months, the Canadian portion would be abandoned. A similar process is possible within a year on the U.S. portion of the railway, officials told the Grand Forks Gazette.

Grand Forks Mayor Brian Taylor said the announcement was not a surprise, noting that local officials are looking for options to keep the railroad running.

“We don’t know what the final determination would be,” said Kettle Falls Mayor Dorothy Slagle, “but we would stand behind those working to keep the line open.”

Bob Whittaker, of Republic, president of Ferry County Rail Trail Partners, said his group joins the communities in their concern about the economic impact of losing rail service to the region.

However, he said, if the abandonment becomes official, the region should consider “railbanking” the right of way to prevent it from being gobbled up piecemeal by private landowners and developers.

In 1983, Congress made it possible for local governments or private groups to assume title of an abandoned railway and preserve the right of way for possible future use as a railroad. In the interim, rules require the right of way to be converted into a public trail.

Some railways are under easements that revert back to adjacent landowners after abandonment, Whittaker said. If a line is railbanked, the corridor is treated as though it had not been abandoned, he said.

“We all wanted to keep these rails active, but the next best thing is to preserve the corridor for future use and develop it in the meantime into the best and only international rail trail in North America,” he said.

The Rail Trail Partners spearheaded the recent movement to protect an abandoned railway Ferry County acquired last year. The 28.5-mile rail trail runs along the north-flowing portion of Kettle River from Republic to the Canada border.

That trail could be linked with existing trails near Grand Forks and with the Kettle Falls International Railway, should the abandonments occur, he said. The railway runs along the south-flowing portion of the Kettle River with access into the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.

The railbanking option would open the possibility for a one-of-a-kind 80-mile international horseshoe-shaped route linking 10 communities, including Kettle Falls, he said.

“That would be making lemonade out of lemons,” Whittaker said. “The Grand Forks Trail Society and the rest of us are all keeping our eyes on this situation and we’re ready to help if the hatchet falls on rail service.

“The main thing is to preserve this right of way in perpetuity as part of our region’s infrastructure and a link between the two countries.”

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