Wilburton Trestle
Photo by Slack Action

The Port of Seattle had announced today they will suspend their purchase of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Eastside Rail property due to the bad credit market. The Port had planned to make the $107 million purchase in December of last year, but postponed that when credit markets took a turn for the worse and their ability to raise capital was severely weakened. The Port has also suspended a plan to build a $413 million parking garage (apologies, that post did not take the Blogger to WordPress transition well) late last year.

The Port of Seattle still does plan on purchasing the 42-mile right of way at some future date after the credit market issues have been resolved. King County Executive Ron Sims had worked a deal with the Port for a swap of Boeing Field for the BNSF corridor and some cash. Sims had wanted the line to be converted into a bike and jogging trail, much like old interurban rights-of-way had been converted previously. The County Council never gave the deal final approval. (It seemed Ron Sims knew about the County’s budget problems for a lot longer than he let on).

The Eastside BNSF that was last used for passenger service in 2007, when the Spirit of Washington dinner line stopped operating. Sections of the line had continued to be used for freight, particularly in the Woodinville and Bellevue areas, but that activity has since ceased as well. Sound Transit released a cost estimate of operating commuter passenger rail service on the corridor last month. Shortly after, I argued that commuter rail on the Eastside BSNF line will never materialize due to a very high cost-per-ride estimate. The line was severed in South Bellevue to make way for I-405 widening, and a new tunnel or overpass of the freeway would have to be completed for the north-south traffic to be able to run the length of the line.

27 Replies to “Port Suspends Eastside Rail Purchase Indefinitely”

  1. So does this mean that the ST2 money that was going to go to the eastside BNSF corridor can go to something else?

    1. It was written into the plan that the $50mn will go to bus service on the 405 corridor. Whether that will remain the case with the budget changes, who knows?

  2. Ballard Terminal RR starts operations soon on the line. A caboose and a locomotive should appear around Woodinville soon.

  3. ST has no skin in the BNSF game, beyond a study. The entire purpose of the purchase by the Port was to preserve the ROW – for a bike trail, in Ron’s view, but many of us hoped for a retention of the ROW for public purposes, generally – we’d figure out precisely how it looked later on. The route as it now exists never seemed like a good fit for transit, IMHO, but certain portions of it could provide ROW (which will continue to go up in price) for the future.

    Hopefully, BNSF will just sit on it for a bit; they have indicated an intent to abandon.

    1. Yes, preserving the ROW is a very good idea.

      At the very least the City of Bellevue preferred alignment for East link uses the section from NE 6th to just past NE 12th. If ST puts an East O&M base in one of the locations along the ROW they’re going to want at least a little more of it.

      Additional parts of the ROW are probably useful for a Kirkland spur or for an East of the lake N/S spine should either ever get built.

    2. I think this is exactly right. Turning it into a commuter rail line never seemed to make much sense, especially at the cost, but portions of the ROW, especially through Kirkland and Renton, could be very useful if and when a light rail line would eventually be built North-South on the Eastside. Such a line could run on the East Link tracks through Downtown Bellevue, eliminating the must troublesome aspect of the BNSF route. Admittedly, such a line would be a long time off, but hopefully the useful ROW can be preserved with some foresight.

    3. I’d imagine that ROW will actually drop in price as land values here continue to decrease.

    4. We need to be cautious if the railroad really does proceed with abandonment, which could mean that abutting property owners exercise reversionary rights to reclaim their portion of the ROW.

    5. Dear Rep. Eddy: Do you Amtrak consider reopening service to Pacific County? I have friends who want the train back. Maybe we could even see the economy there revitalized a bit. I think there might still be a ROW. I hope we keep/recapture these lands around the state for tranist at some level of government. Thanks.

      1. Uh, considering the state just downsized the passenger rail department at WSDOT… I think that’s wishful thinking. More likely we’re going to have to fight just to keep the service we have.

  4. Pacific County? Long Beach, WA?

    While possible if Rail America would have never took over Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad, RA is not friendly (yes, worse than Union Pacific Railroad) in allowing passenger operations. As far as I know, you could still go from Centralia, WA to just West of Aberdeen, WA before the rail stops. Even for passenger ops to resume, Amtrak would most certainly never look at the route.

    It would be a nice item to have for a tourist railroad in coop with RA/PSAP. There was talks at one time while PSAP was still the main owner to rebuilding the line out to Ocean Shores but never panned out and the state didn’t see the reason for reducing the driving miles out there.

    Its a beautiful route, increase the rail speed out there *mostly 40mph, bump it to 60mph* and give or take 15-30 minutes, it would keep up with auto traffic easily. It would most definitely be a major player in the Spring and Summer months out there but not a viable all season train.

    1. Maybe referring to the passenger train that ran from Portland to Astoria for a while a couple of years ago? That’s not far over the river from the Long Beach area…

  5. BNSF has already abandon the route south of Woodinville (including the Redmond spur). This portion has been rail banked so I don’t think property owners along the line have any chance of claiming dibs on it. A partnership between GNP and Ballard Terminal RR (which means mostly if not entirely Tom Payne)has been awarded the easement for operational right of way on the portion north of Woodinville. It’s a not so uncommon arrangement where the operational ROW is separated from the land ownership. He can run local freight and excursion trains. The willingness to operate “local freight” is a requirement by the STB. Other than a large precast plant near Maltby I can’t think of any industry along the line. The City of Snohomish is very keen on the idea of an excursion train to Woodinville. They recently gave the OK to come across the bridge over the Snohomish river and into the downtown area along the Centenial Trail where GNP purchased a chunk of land. I’d expect this service to be running in one or two years.

    The title of this post is worthy of the Seattle SomeTimes. “Port Suspends Eastside Rail Purchase Indefinitely”, how about the headline “Economic Crises to Continue Indefinitely”. As the press release from the the Port says and buried in the content of the post the Port remains committed to public ownership for the corridor. With the operational ROW granted for ten years (with an option for another ten) on the northern section and the southern section rail banked who other than a public entity is going to buy it?

    1. I think there are a couple of rail freight customers still in Woodinville. I assume Ballard Terminal will try to drum up some additional customers from industrial businesses along the ROW.

      For the excursion train are there any plans to keep the necessary portions of the ROW so the train can serve the wineries on 145th?

  6. i was thinking, the bnsf swap for boeing field is a terrible deal for the county. Boeing field is 3% of the area within Seattle’s limits and has to be worth more than $107 million.

  7. I was really hoping to be able to ride my bike on this, by the time that happens I will probably not be here…

    It’s hard to find routes around Bellevue that have a nice gentle grade.

  8. The portion of this rail line that runs from Factoria to Renton isn’t needed for a bike lane. There are already fine alternatives along most of this. I just want to make sure that this ROW stays in the public domain until we can figure out what to do with it. If a commuter train,LightRail,monorail,PRT whatever is to be built we need the ROW. Elevating it along most of this Southern portion would help with all the ungated crossings and let us build without interfering much with the existing bike path on this section.

    And as the article says, with the credit/bond market what it is today, there isn’t much chance of anyone other than the homeowners buying this land. So key is keeping the ROW in the public domain. Otherwise we’ll be paying a premium when we condem it and have to buy it back from those same homeowners.

  9. I’ve always been a bit confused about why the county would need to purchase the ROW when it would seem logical that some type of multi-jurisdictional land use control (similar in concept to the industrial MIC designation in the countrywide planning policies) could preserve the corridor basically for free until it was needed for use and /or operations. I find it hard to believe that the corridor would be worth $50 million or whatever if it was forced by regulation to remain in transportation uses.

    any thoughts appreciated

  10. The only use I’ve ever seen in Woodinville was as a team track in front of the Post Office. That’s where they park semi’s and unload. There’s no load/unload ramp here so I’ve never been able to figure out exactly how that was used. It may have been supplying the RR work trains that used this track a lot to stage equipment and move crews. The other business in Woodinville was the drywall distribution place over by the slew. That might still be viable as a rail short line customer.

    I’d think there would be a deal worked out to take the trains down to the wineries. From reading the notices to the STB it sounds like everything south of Woodinville was abandon but I’ll have to check the mile posts. I’m assuming Snohomish is interested to boost the antique business and teaming with the winery tour at the other end seems like a natural. Plus they already have the load/unload zone.

    I don’t really know why Ballard Terminal is named other than it might have something to do with them already being an active rail road in Washington. That’s speculation. They may want to be involved in operations, shared maintenance and rolling stock. I’ll try to find out.

    I believe the idea of transferring Boeing Field to the Port was that the Port (in theory) should be better at running an airport and having SeaTac and Boeing Field under the same management would be more efficient. It did seem like the county was coming out on the short end of the deal but I don’t know anything about the finances of Boeing Field. Is the County operating it at a loss? More than anything I think it had to do with Ron Sims wanting a legacy bike trail.

    I don’t think homeowners can buy the land. Since it’s rail banked there is always the option of it being reclaimed for rail use. I don’t think they can divide it up. Certainly not without the OK of the STB which wouldn’t happen unless it was being transferred to another railroad or public entity which would maintain the corridor. The problem with ever putting rail back is the public/political fallout which becomes almost insurmountable over time. Houghton residence are fighting it already and Kirkland has a major Park/Green Space (something forrest) along the tracks just north of town. The folks along the 405 ROW south of Wilburton and North of I-90 fought against Link using the ROW.

    The good news is that when GNP starts operations on the Northern section they plan to put in a maintenance road along the whole route. It won’t be the official bike trail with the cute signs and the aggravating bollards at every crossing but it should be a nice trail. I believe they were talking about paving but I could be wrong on that. There’s advantages (for biking) if it’s left gravel. The southern section will likely wither away. The section from Wilburton to Woodinville would have made for a really great connection to the 520 bike trail and on to the SRT in Woodinville. If you’re staying along Lake Washington the bike route isn’t too bad but getting from Factoria over to East Lake Sammamish isn’t great (it’s OK) and trying to get through central Bellevue and Totem Lake is pretty awful.

    The laws around purchase of rail ROW are very strange. I assume the County did pay for the East Lake Sammamish ROW. Anybody remember how much? Another interesting question is how much if any does it get taxed? I’m assuming that one of the reasons for abandonment by BNSF is to make it tax exempt? I suppose the southern portion could be bought by the Port or the County (or Sound Transit) separate from the northern portion. That might be a financial way to get beyond the current impasse.

  11. Maybe this is actually a good thing for all of us! A lot of money to be spent on something that just doesn’t make a lot of sense right now (running commuter trains????). So I’m unclear….if BNSF is still sitting on the corridor and abandonment has been applied for, can BNSF run trains on the line now while the Port figures out what their next step will be?

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