Old rail tracks near Pinellas Trail spark legal battle

Grass grows over the old CSX tracks on the disputed property. (Ben Leonard  | Times)
Grass grows over the old CSX tracks on the disputed property. (Ben Leonard | Times)
Published July 8, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Land around rusty, broken railroad tracks near Tropicana Field forms a makeshift walking path toward the Pinellas Trail, and the City of St. Petersburg wants to connect it.

But the city is battling to block the owner of the half-mile railroad land, CSX, from selling it. Late last month, St. Petersburg filed a complaint in federal district court asserting that the city has the right to the land, which is next to municipal property.

"A piece of what they were talking about selling we already own," Mayor Rick Kriseman told the Tampa Bay Times. "That was kind of problematic. That's like you selling my house and collecting the money for it. It's like, 'Well, wait a minute. I own that.'"

In the short term, Kriseman said the city wants to use it as a bike and walking path and green space around it. In the long term, it could be a "great spot" for light rail that could go to the Tropicana Field site, he said.

Is an electric scooter the same as a bike? Florida law says yes, trail users say no

A pending sale of the land to developers could prevent the local leaders from making the trail or eventually building light rail on the land the city believes it has a right to. In 2014, voters shot down a light rail plan that would have connected St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

"The City has certain rights to the Railroad Segment under state and federal law by virtue of being a municipality, an abutting landowner, a purchaser, and having other concurrent rights" to the segment, the complaint said.

CSX has rail lines all over the Eastern United States and reported more than $12 billion in revenue in 2018. In a May 30 email, it told the city that it had reached a purchase sale agreement for the segment. The city's complaint said it was sold to an "undisclosed entity."

St. Petersburg says it has "continuously maintained and repaired portions of the Railroad Segment, without interruption" for longer than four years, which the city argues makes it entitled to the property under Florida law.

The 75-mile Pinellas Trail opened in 1990 and was originally built on old railroad tracks, according to Pinellas County's website. Roughly 1.4 million people used the walking and biking path that loops from downtown St. Petersburg all the way up and around to Tarpon Springs. The trail has some gaps that officials are working to fill, but has no gaps near the land at the center of the legal dispute.

The segment in question begins from the south side of 5th Avenue N and goes to Dr. Martin Luther King St. N. The segment provides a straight shot from 16th Street N near 5th Avenue to Central Avenue, right next to Ferg's Sports Bar. From there, a short underpass connects users to the Pinellas Trail right by Tropicana Field.

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It is unclear when trains stopped traveling on the property in question. Amtrak passenger service between St. Petersburg and Tampa ended Feb. 1, 1984, and CSX removed the tracks, according to a 1988 St. Petersburg Times story. CSX still operates freight lines in Tampa Bay. These lines have been the subject of public plans to convert to commuter rail since the 1990s, though nothing has come to fruition. CSX currently needs land north of 5th Avenue in St. Petersburg for its operations, according to the email attached to the complaint.

The city took ownership of a CSX right-of-way to extend the Pinellas Trail from 34th Avenue South through Tropicana Field, according to a 2006 City Council resolution attached to the complaint. Before the city took ownership, the Trust for Public Land initially purchased the rail bed — which stretches towards downtown — for $4.75 million, the St. Petersburg Times reported in 2006.

The city says in the event of "abandonment" of a rail line, "title to the Railroad Segment must necessarily vest in the City of St. Petersburg," and is requesting a ruling saying so.

It also is requesting a judgement saying that CSX can't sell the land without permission from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulator.

In a June 5 letter, St Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin requested that the Surface Transportation Board declare the rail segment suitable for other public use, specifically for trails. Tomalin also requested an order preventing "removal or destruction of potential trail-related structures" like bridges and tunnels, among other things.

"The corridor in question connects to Pinellas Trail — an existing and highly successful rails-to-trails conversion," Tomalin wrote.

Citing pending litigation, a CSX spokeswoman declined comment. Assistant City Attorney Bradley Tennant also declined to comment.

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this story.