Case 144

Friends of the Atglen-Susquehanna Trail, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Comm'n, 717 A.2d 581 (Pa. 1998).

Plaintiff, Friends of the Atglen-Susquehanna Trail, Inc. (FAST), a rails-to-trails organization, requested judicial review of a decision by defendant, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, that approved stipulations of a settlement that Conrail, a railroad company, entered into with local townships and the Department of Transportation (DOT) that abolished rail-highway crossings along the former Enola Branch rail line and allowed the transfer of Conrail's property.

Plaintiff questioned whether the commission was preempted from ordering the demolition of historic bridges by the Interstate Commerce Commission's (ICC) and the Surface Transportation Board's (STB) orders; whether the commission had complied with the State History Code; whether the commission had erred by not including this case in a moratorium adopted pursuant to the governor's policy of bridge preservation; whether the commission complied with the Rails to Trails Act of December 18, 1990; and whether the commission's conclusion that certain bridges are near the end of their useful life is supported by substantial evidence. The commission challenged FAST's standing to appeal.

The court dismissed the commission's request to quash the petition for review based on FAST's lack of standing to appeal. In support of its position, the commission had asserted that FAST did not have an immediate or substantial interest, did not own the subject land or have a reasonable expectation of owning the land. The court found that FAST had standing under State preservation laws because it sought to enforce State and Federal laws and policies relating to historic preservation. Additionally, as a trails group, it had exerted substantial efforts to acquire and convert the rail line at issue.

The petitioners attempted to assert that the subject matter jurisdiction of the commission was preempted by orders of ICC and STB, and that the theory of "conflict preemption" which can apply where State law actually conflicts with Federal law to such a degree that it is impossible for a private party to comply with both, "or where State law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purpose and objectives of Congress." Friends, 717 A.2d 581, 586. In this instance, FAST proposed that conflict preemption applied to divest the commission of jurisdiction until the Section 106 review process required by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was completed. The court held that the commission was not preempted from proceeding in the matter, and that its order was not in conflict with STB requirements because it required the applicant to complete Section 106 review in compliance with the order.

FAST's argument—that the commission erred by not including the case in the moratorium issued by the commission pursuant to the governor's policy of bridge preservation adopted shortly after the order in this case—was dismissed with a finding that the issue had not been properly presented and amounted to nothing more than a disagreement with a policy decision.

The court concluded its review by rejecting FAST's assertion that the commission's conclusion regarding the condition of the subject bridges, and the finding that they were near the end of their life span, was not supported by substantial evidence. On the other hand, after noting more than 350 factual findings made by the administrative law judge and reports by both the applicant and affected townships, the court found that there was substantial evidence to support the finding of fact, and affirmed the order of the commission.

Go to Table of Contents Go to Top