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In 19th-century America, entrepreneurs bought up yawning stretches of land, developed highways across them, and charged customers to use them. To prevent theft of their coveted service, the entrepreneurs often blocked off access to their roads with a metal pike, which they would turn after collecting usage fees from the customers (hence the term “turnpike”).

On the eve of the 21st century, the turnpike is making a comeback in the Washington metro area. In two suits filed this spring, the Riders’ Fund Trust (RFT) is claiming ownership of an 800-foot strip of the Clara Barton Parkway, which runs along the north bank of the Potomac River. And it’s suing the National Park Service (NPS), which runs the parkway, for $30 million to continue using its stretch of the highway. The damage claims are based in part on a hypothetical 65-cent toll for each of the 6.6 million cars that ply the parkway each year.

RFT is a D.C.-based nonprofit formed to manage refunds paid to area transit users to compensate for the overcharges of the now-defunct D.C. Transit System Inc. The riders’ maiden suit, filed in 1960, sought refunds for an “outrageous” hike in bus fares from 20 cents to 25 cents in 1959. RFT also brought suits for five more fare increases between 1960 and 1969. The group’s litigiousness has paid off: It now holds $11.1 million in court awards and settlements.

Still, RFT could triple its holdings if it prevails in the Clara Barton action. “It’s a windfall for the Riders’ Fund,” says Leonard Bebchick, the RFT’s court-appointed counsel.

Too bad Bebchick and the trust’s brass can’t chalk up their potential windfall to business savvy: They had no clue about their property’s hidden value when they bought it from D.C. Transit for a modest $42,500 in 1993. The purchase was part of the fallout from a skirmish in the trust’s long-running battle with D.C. Transit, which sold the property to RFT after it failed to make good on $9.2 million in promissory notes that were part of a 1990 settlement awarded to RFT. The plot of land—known as the Cabin John Properties—is about 15.4 acres that run parallel to the parkway. For an 800-foot stretch of road just north of the Glen Echo exit, the parkway and the RFT property overlap, RFT claims.

Although D.C. Transit in 1964 gave NPS conditional permission to use the property, RFT contends the license automatically expired at the time of sale in 1993. “The trust owns the property from the center of the earth to the heavens—the air rights, the subsoil rights,” says Bebchick.

When NPS learned of the RFT action last November, it notified the trust that it will “continue to use, and allow the public to use, the entire [parkway].” And in a brief filed last Thursday, Justice Department Attorney Alan Brenner flatly denies the riders’ claims. Brenner argues that the government has the right to cross portions of the highway that were built on parcels now owned by RFT.

RFT is bracing for a brawl with the feds, who don’t take kindly to multimillion-dollar suits from puny nonprofits. It took the trust two decades to reach closure on its rate-hike suits, and there’s no reason to expect the parkway action to move faster.

Any awards that RFT collects go straight into Metro’s coffers. And how Metro decides to use the cash is likely to be as contentious as the legal battles between RFT and court opponents. Bebchick and many other Metro users would like to see the money go for better signage and bus shelters. Metro wants to spend all the money purchasing more big buses. Virginia and Maryland would like the money to come off their Metro subsidies.

—Julie Wakefield