Last week, King County Parks published a draft master plan for the Eastside Rail Corridor Regional Trail. The County aims to develop a permanent paved trail on over 16 miles of the corridor.
As the trail plan enters a public comment period, Sound Transit is finalizing its own draft system plan. That will clarify how portions of the corridor may be shared with transit. Across the Eastside, efforts to bring the corridor into public use are accelerating. Legacy freight tracks will be removed in 2017, and trails are being expanded. Snohomish County has agreed to buy 12 miles of corridor and is expected to build a trail alongside the active rail line. A once contentious political debate over rails vs trails has been mostly replaced by a consensus that the ERC will serve both (though it still echoes in Kirkland where transit opponents have coalesced around “Save Our Trail” rhetoric).
Since being rail-banked in 2009, ownership has resided with several jurisdictions. The cities of Redmond and Kirkland mostly own the segments within their respective city limits. Sound Transit owns a 1-mile section where East Link will be built. The balance of the rail-banked area is owned by King County. The County is also the trail sponsor in the Sound Transit area. Sound Transit and other utilities retain easements along the ERC. Owners and stakeholders collaborate through the ERC Regional Advisory Council.
Here’s a flavor of what’s going on:
Eastside Trail Master Plan. The draft master plan, released last week, and open for public comment through the end of March, describes a high quality trail on 16.5 miles of the main line and a portion of the Redmond Spur. Planners envision a paved trail at least 12 feet wide with a 6-foot gravel shoulder for runners and walkers to one side and a smaller gravel shoulder on the other.
The plan generally describes two alternative alignments. The lower cost alternative mostly follows the relatively flat rail-bed. An off-railbed alternative specifies a trail closer to the edge of the corridor to provide flexibility for accommodation of other uses. In some areas, only one alternative is possible. Near Renton, the corridor is as narrow as 25 feet. In Bellevue, East Link has already constrained the alignment. An important consideration is that the ERC trail not preclude other uses on the corridor.
Conceptually, the cost of an on-railbed alternative is about $158 million (midpoint of range), and the off-railbed alternative could add $90 million if pursued through the entire corridor. However, only $11 million of that is in the critical Wilburton segment (I-90 to Kirkland) where transit uses are more likely. Partly, that’s because this segment is already constrained by East Link and other development so that only one option is available. South of Bellevue, and north of Kirkland, a trail on the railbed carries less risk of being displaced by other uses. The trail master plan will be informed by the concurrent Sound Transit system planning process.
A signature element of the ERC trail will be the Wilburton Trestle, almost 1,000 feet long and 100 feet tall. The trestle will be one of the most popular destinations along the trail, and extra space will be added on the structure for viewing without impeding trail traffic.
Transit Connections. East Link will use the rail corridor for about one mile north of downtown Bellevue. Though politically contentious, it’s possible that ST3 will also include transit connections along the corridor. All of the Eastside cities endorsed transit on the ERC serving Kirkland and Issaquah in letters to Sound Transit in January.
Rail Removal. In November, King County Council approved plans to remove freight rails through the sections of the corridor that it owns. The first phase of rail removal will extend from Kirkland to Coulon Park in Renton and be complete by mid-2017. Sound Transit will also remove rails in Bellevue to facilitate construction of East Link. A second phase will cover the areas north of Kirkland and Redmond. The County must initiate an RFP for excursion rail in that area, but if no feasible proposal is submitted, those rails will also be removed by early 2018.
A symbolic first spike was removed from the rail line in Bellevue on January 8. Selling the surplus rails is likely to help fund trail improvements. Rail removal will facilitate construction of an interim trail, potentially starting in 2017. Executive Constantine indicated the interim trail would begin with an extension from Kirkland to meet the SR 520 trail, creating a continuous connection “from Totem Lake to Montlake”.
Kirkland. Rails have been removed through Kirkland, and an interim crushed-gravel trail put in place. Since opening the interim trail in the fall of 2014, the city has focused on improving neighborhood connections to the trail, with walkways and stairs to many adjacent streets. The most ambitious connection to date will open in 2017 in South Kirkland, where Kirkland is building an elevator and bridge to connect the transit station to the trail.
Kirkland’s master plan anticipates permanent paved trails on the Cross-Kirkland Corridor. Most sections will evolve to a shared use trail for bikes and other faster users, and a slower walking-only trail alongside. The plan describes a shared multi-use corridor with trails generally on the west side and transit to the east, and this general placement was acknowledged in Sound Transit’s recent studies. Kirkland’s development regulations encourage local businesses to face the corridor. Google’s recently expanded campus straddles the corridor with the first paved section of trail in the middle.
Redmond. Legacy freight rails have also been removed on the corridor spur in Redmond where East Link will terminate, and a trail is being built in phases along Redmond’s entire portion. The first phase from downtown Redmond to the Sammamish River Trail was completed in 2013. A second phase, north along Willows Rd to the 9900 block, will be completed this year. A third, and final, phase to about 124th St remains unfunded. That would connect the trail on the Redmond Spur to the nearby County-owned trail north of Kirkland.
Bellevue. The corridor within the city of Bellevue is owned by King County and Sound Transit. Bellevue has focused on planning connections from the ERC to the community. Most notably, planning has begun on a ‘Grand Connection‘ linking the ERC, through downtown Bellevue, to Meydenbauer Bay. The connection would promote walking and bike use from downtown to Wilburton, including a crossing of I-405. The connection will influence the land use patterns of the Wilburton commercial area by improving connectivity to downtown and the ERC trail.
Snohomish County has agreed to buy a 12-mile section of corridor from the Port of Seattle, culminating an on-again, off-again negotiation over several years. That will allow Snohomish to build a trail alongside the tracks, connecting the King County trail to the south with the Centennial trail to the north. Rail lines would remain in service for freight and perhaps excursion service. The deal is anticipated to close in April.
The first Eastside Rail Corridor Summit was held in Bellevue in January. The well-attended event was an opportunity for governments and nonprofits to identify priorities for corridor development. Speakers included urban planner Ryan Gravel and former Atlanta City Council president Cathy Woolard, both closely associated with the Atlanta Beltline. The Beltline has obvious parallels to the ERC; it is a 23-mile former freight rail corridor that is being developed as a trail system with transit alongside.
Eastside Greenway Alliance. Announced at the ERC Summit, the Alliance is an association of non-profit organizations with interests in trails and transportation. The Eastside Greenway Alliance set a goal of a “fully built connected multi-use corridor from Renton to Woodinville” by 2025. The Alliance will advance multi-use development of the ERC through community engagement, fundraising and advocacy.