Port of Seattle on track to purchase BNSF corridor

Port on track to purchase BNSF corridor
by Jeanette Knutson
Staff Writer

On Dec. 11, the Seattle Port Commission gave Port CEO Tay Yoshitani authority to complete the purchase of the 42-mile Eastside rail corridor with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).

The price for the corridor is $103 million; another $4 million was added for contingencies such as legal fees and other costs associated with the purchase, said Mike Merritt, Port of Seattle’s government relations manager.

“We expect to close the sale around September 2008,” said Merritt. “A lot of due-diligence has to take place before the sale closes. … The Port is committed to the idea of dual use for the corridor, including both rail and trail uses. When and how those uses might take place will be the subject of a public process that we envision will happen in the coming months. Details of that process are not settled.”

In the meantime, King County has expressed an interest in buying segments of the corridor from the Port, namely the southern portion of the corridor between the Wilburton tunnel and Renton, and most of the spur between Redmond and Woodinville just south of Woodinville.

“The Port (will negotiate) with the county over their interest in having the right to purchase some of the corridor section, among other issues,” said Merritt. “The County Council adopted what the council considers to be the outlines of that agreement on (Dec. 17, 2007); then the County Executive will negotiate the actual agreement with the Port.”

The framework of the agreement that the King County Council approved “ensures the rails in this corridor will not be removed,” said King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert. “Preserving future transportation options in this corridor is essential for the fast-growing Eastside as well as for regional mobility.”

County Councilman Bob Ferguson said, “Now the hard work begins to initiate a conversation with the public for determining the specific details regarding the future of the corridor.”

King County originally wanted to remove the tracks from Renton to Woodinville to build a recreational trail, saying in a couple decades, things would change and the Eastside corridor would become a good rail corridor.

Kurt Triplett, the County Executive’s chief of staff, said last summer, “Our premise, Ron Sims’ premise, is that it will not be a commuter corridor for several decades. … In the meantime, we can have a magnificent trail that connects to 125 miles of trails. We would be creating a huge amenity.”

Triplett did not mention that trails already run along much of the distance from Renton to the South Bellevue Park & Ride lot and between Redmond and Woodinville, a fact Eastside Rail Now!, a grassroots movement opposed to pulling up miles of railroad track to build a bicycle trail, brought to light last summer.

Paul Zimmer of Eastside Rail Now! said, “Regarding the existence of trails parallel to the corridor, it is surprising that it has taken the mainstream media such a long time to catch on to this. It is just one of several things that has made some of us wonder what is the real reason for Ron Sims’ obsession with scrapping the railroad – and for doing so as quickly as possible.

“Regarding commuter rail service on the (line), there is a rapidly growing and broad-based interest in launching it. It is technically possible for it to be in limited operation within a matter of months, and there now appears to be a good chance that such service could be implemented in 2008. There is absolutely no need or desirability for waiting 20 or 30 years.”

Zimmer cited several reasons why he thought rail service along the corridor was receiving renewed consideration, including (1) acquisition of the corridor by the Port, as opposed to King County; (2) the mounting concern about global warming, traffic congestion and homeland security (The corridor could serve as a backup to the railroad’s mainline or Interstate 405.); (3) the failure of Proposition 1 and the consequent search for less costly and more effective transportation solutions and (4) the disclosure that the Puget Sound Regional Council’s “BNSF Corridor Preservation Study,” which recommended scrapping the railroad, was flawed and thus not useful for making decisions about the future of the railroad.

“The Port clearly does not appear to be interested in rushing to remove the tracks, in sharp contrast to Ron Sims,” said Zimmer. “Remember, the Port’s legally mandated role is to promote freight and passenger mobility, not to destroy transportation infrastructure. The concept of a ‘public process’ could be a very good one, and it is something that Sims tried to avoid.”

It bears repeating what Eastside Transit Now! has stated on its Web site, “What has not been emphasized is the fact that once a railroad gets dismantled and the right of way paved into a trail, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, both politically and financially, to reinstall the rails for transit use and/or for other railroad purposes.”

Both the Burke-Gilman Trail and Snohomish County’s Centennial Trail are former rail corridors.

The Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a transportation policy think tank, made a big push at the end of last year to promote utilizing the existing corridor for both transit and trail. The Center hosted a rail forum in Woodinville Nov. 26, where it introduced the community-based “Eastside TRailway” demonstration project, a $10 million pilot program using a DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit) running from the City of Snohomish to Bellevue.

Colorado Railcar and Siemens manufacture these self-propelled rail cars, which operate or will operate in corridors in West Palm Beach, Fla.; San Diego, Calif.; Washington County, Ore.; and Alaska. DMUs are widely used in Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Korea and Japan. They are lighter than commuter rail, more fuel-efficient, quieter, require shorter platforms and can carry bike racks. They can operate on regular freight rail track or on rails embedded in streets. A bi-level car can carry up to 188 passengers.

Cascadia’s plan is to develop a strategy to finance the development of a rail and trail corridor that will improve Snohomish and King County mobility, improve economic development and tourism, and promote healthy recreational activities. It is sponsoring two more community forums to bring together train and trail advocates, local leaders, and finance / development interests to discuss the Eastside TRailway Partnership.

The first will be held in the Peter Kirk Room of the Kirkland City Hall, 123 Fifth Ave. on January 16, 2008. Reception: 5:00 p.m. Program: 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Karen Guzak, newly elected Snohomish City Councilmember, will co-host the second event on January 17, 2008, at the Angel Arms Works, 230 Avenue B, City of Snohomish. Reception: 5:30 p.m. Program: 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Although there is no cost to attend, space is limited. Attendees are asked to RSVP to Jennifer Zucati at (206) 292-0401, extension 157 or jenniferz@discovery.org.

The Woodinville City Council has supported a transit / trail corridor for several years. It recently sent letters re-stating its support of a dual-use corridor to the Port of Seattle, Sound Transit, the Eastside Transportation Partnership, and the Seashore Transportation Forum, amongst others.

Former City Councilwoman Gina Leonard said, “This opportunity (to utilize existing rail infrastructure) may never come up again.”

Councilman Scott Hageman said, “There are too many possibilities to pull the rails.”

“We have a huge opportunity right in front of our noses,” said Councilman Chuck Price. “Something needs to be done.”

Steve Pyeatt, who took on the Eastside rail corridor as a pet project when he ran for the King County Council in 2005, called using the corridor for transit “something we can do.” He said, “When people think of ‘commuter rail’ they think of the Sounder, which is incredibly expensive and cumbersome. DMUs are the way to go.”

Pyeatt supports Cascadia’s proposed demonstration project from Bellevue to the City of Snohomish.

Greg Stephens, longtime advocate for the incorporation of Maltby, also favors a rails and trail combination along the corridor.

“Three state highways converge in Maltby, State Routes 9, 522 and 524,” said Stephens. “(Using the Eastside rail corridor for commuter transit) makes all the sense in the world to those of us who live out here. In my opinion, we need to have both. We need a place where you can ride a bike and not get run over by a car, and we need to have a transportation link to get to work.

“All you have to do is go back East. People can commute to work for 40 minutes by train, and (their hometowns) can still keep their small-town atmosphere. Buses are fine for short trips, but if you have to go a long way, you’d have to stop every few miles. Self-propelled trains make sense.”

Stephens also likes Cascadia’s demonstration project between Bellevue and Snohomish. “As soon as someone rides it a few times,” said Stephens, “they will continue to use it.”

He said politicians were so-often wedded to the use of consultants to prove their points.

“They need to pay attention to real people who will pay for the service and use it. We could do something now for very little money. Let’s do it while we have the chance. This takes political will. I applaud Ron Sims for wanting to bring the corridor into public ownership and to build a trail, but we need to have rails as well. It is time to do the courageous thing.”

2008 Thoughts and Predictions

Happy New Years everyone!

Here are some of my thoughts for 2008…

Rail:

Everett Streetcar – System will get Green Light for full 4 mile long build out and will be operational in 2009. Streetcar will spark faster redevelopment in Riverfront, Waterfront, and Downtown. Everett will be taken serious once again.

Sound Transit will step up the construction process for Mukilteo Southbound platform (Only the Northbound Platform will be built first, yes you can get on both directions) by feeding BNSF more money.

Construction on the “ramp” to Pacific Avenue in Tacoma for the M Street to D Street connection will meet several lawsuits delaying the project further.

Seattle Streetcar will get funding for 10 year study to Fremont using the existing old Streetcar right of way that went to Fremont… Meanwhile, lawsuits will pop up on the idea of the idea of the Streetcar to the University of Washington and Montlake Station.

Another Grassroots idea for the Monorail from Ballard to West Seattle will surface, bubble up from $3.2 billion $19 billion dollars, get rejected by voters, again, then blame Greg Nickels and Sound Transit.

Sound Transit will come back in November for getting Link to Northgate Transit Center ASAP and will purchase a 4th TBM to finish University Link ahead of schedule.

Portland MAX will enter Vancouver, Washington by new I-5 bridge or separate light-rail bridge over the Columbia River in the next 2 to 5 years.

Ron Sims will continue to fight tooth and nail to get the Eastside Rail Corridor into a trail while Tom Payne gets his equipment ready to run from Snohomish to Bellevue @ NE 8th.

Roads:

Gregoire will push for 520 and Viaduct replacement with Dino Rossi coming up. She will also put the fear of god into Sound Transit to prevent more rail.

Oil will reach $150 a barrel by the end of the year.

I-5 between I-90 and Mercer Street will undergo another study to study if fixing that section of roadway is feasible.

Amtrak will start stopping in Stanwood and Leavenworth in November but passengers will be stuck without bus service to the stations. (Leavenworth’s transit starts 1 hour after the train to Seattle arrives and service ends 1 hour before the train arrives enroute to Chicago…)

Buses:

BRT will not be successful in King County but will flourish in Snohomish County. People in King County will be spoiled since Light-Rail will be running first.

Transit Now will shift towards more Streetcar and Light-Rail and change order from more Hybrids to more 60 foot electric trolleys for the 7/9 routes. Breda and MAN buses will be retired, 2 of each will enter the Metro Transit historical society.

I’m sure I could come up with more but Carless in Seattle covers the rest pretty well

Snohomish County BRT (Swift)

I’d like to expand on Daimajin’s short comments about Snohomish BRT. First of all, you can find a lot more info than the Times article here. It’s a big improvement over King County’s plans, although of course the geographic scope is smaller.

Kudos to Snohomish County leaders for getting this done with an electorate that is generally less transit-friendly than King County. Bonus points for getting it done without a tax or fare increase, and not taking it through a laborious public vote.

The project should be done in 2009. King County’s version, RapidRide, won’t have its earliest portion done before 2010 despite being launched over a year earlier. It will mesh quite nicely with RapidRide’s Aurora Service, terminating at Aurora Village. People living along this corridor can access jobs in places like Fremont far faster than the current best option of going downtown, and then back north.

Swift would appear to have the same features as RapidRide, except:

  • The 10-minute headways will be 20 hours a day (instead of peak-only).
  • It has on-board bike racks served by their own door(!)
  • Ticket machines are at the stations, while RapidRide envisions that passengers will still fumble for change on board.
  • Seven miles of the route will actually be bus-only instead of HOV. Anyone who’s ridden 405 Northbound in the afternoon can tell you the difference, although Swift will still have to deal with the usual idiots trying to turn right.

I really wish the people responsible for this were running the BRT shop at Metro. They seem to be doing a lot more with a lot less, at least in this narrow case.

But in spite of all the things they’ve done right, it’s still not light rail. An 80-passenger bus every 10 minutes is nothing like an 800-passenger train every six in terms of capacity, and therefore has dramatically lower potential for high-density development along the line. It also will not be truly separated from traffic. At the same time, what they’ve done here is about as much as you can do with buses before you start to approach the cost of rail.

In the long run, light rail can be run with four or two-minute headways. Buses can’t, because the timing is unreliable and they end up bunched up (See: Metro Route 48). Bigger trains, shorter headways: Light Rail moves a lot more people than BRT, even when BRT is done right.

But BRT is a good option for a corridor that won’t see rail for a long, long time.

UPDATE: Reading between the lines more carefully, I should point out one weakness in the plan: apparently, the ten miles of the line that are not bus-only lanes are general purpose lanes. Given the rather tight constraints they were under, I still think they did a really good job. It’s just not quite as much of a slam dunk over RapidRide.

Getting Rail to the Ballot

There’s a lot of talk about getting some light rail to the ballot next year. As Daimajin points out, I’m not sure that it’s within Sound Transit’s authority to propose that some portion of the ST district be taxed to fund a particular project. Any lawyers out there that can clarify the limits of Sound Transit’s charter?

It’s evident that asking the three-county district to vote on a Northgate extension alone is dead-on-arrival. Another possibility is to revisit the bus/rail extension option that was briefly considered by the board for this year’s ballot, which would have involved only a 0.3% sales tax increase. Although that option was savaged during the comment period in favor of more aggressive rail construction, the kind of person who comments at that stage in the process is likely a wee bit more energized about transit than the rest of us.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear if that option has enough in it for Snohomish County. Snohomish representatives on the Sound Transit board were quite adamant that getting to Northgate did not adequately serve their constituents, to the point of fighting the idea of “loaning” subarea funds to complete the Northgate line. I found this to be shortsighted, but is probably reasonably reflective of the attitude of voters there.

The other alternative, of course, is to abandon going to the whole district altogether, and do a Seattle-only or King-County-only vote. Legally, I’m not sure how this would work out: would the City just deliver a lump of money to Sound Transit? Set up a separate authority to complete the work? Again, calling all the lawyers…

No doubt we can count on the Sierra Club to produce the initiative it looks like we’ll need…

Sierra Club’s Exit Poll is Bogus, Roads are being built anyway

At Slog, Erica “Party Crasher” Barnett, who showed up to the Yes party just as things got ugly (not meant as a comment on her looks), points to some Sierra Club rubbish that “proves” that Pro-Rail lefties somehow swung the vote.

But the Sierra Club’s sample is way off.

  • They counted 1,250 Seattlites of their 5,004 voters. That counts Seattle as 25% of the region instead of 20% as it is. And, in turnouts, Seattle performed worse than other areas.
  • Their “rest of King County” did not show where they came up with those 1,998 voters. Were they all in Federal Way or Bothel? It’s a big county.
  • They only counted 646 Snohomish County voters, half as many as Seattle voters, when far more Snohomish County folks voted than Seattle folks.

I’m not sure whether ST2 could have passed on its own. It would have been a smaller tax increase, which would have made voters more receptive, and some pro-environment voters could have voted for it. I am sure a lot of pro-roads folks would have voted no, though. This exit poll, however, was performed poorly, and is not statistically accurate. It does not give us that answer conclusively.

What we do know, though, is that they are going to build many of those roads projects anyway, just as we said they would. Pierce County may write their own roads package, which would suck because Pierce County Executive John “boots” Ladenburg gave the best speech of the night Tuesday at the Yes Party. And we know the 520 rebuild is critical, and will be done anyway. That Lindblom piece does bring up the possibility of a rail only package, but notes the legistlature in Olympia might stop it.

On the other hand, our Governor spoke thusly:

Gregoire said the defeat of the initiative was a “significant” blow for Sound Transit and the transit agency now has to decide whether to proceed with plans to extend light rail first to Tacoma or Everett.

When it came to Sound Transit, Gregoire said some of the voters sounded like they were from Missouri, where the state motto is “show me.”

Good job Sierra Club of swinging the 11% away from rail and onto roads!

Update:
There’s someone running around the internet slandering my math, I already wrote this in the comments, but I want to put it at the top here in case anyone is looking.

You can’t compare the numbers from the Washington State site and the counties’ sites, they are not the same thing.

In an apples-to-apples comparison on Washington State’s election site, there were 103914 Yes + 129151 No votes in King totalling 233065, and 38780 + 51939 totalling 90719 in Snohomish.

Then go to King County’s site, they say that in total 286607 people voted in King County. That’s 53,000 MORE people than the state says. In that context, the 90,000+ Seattle voters makes sense, Seattle being about a third of the county’s population. The County has about 25% more voters listed than the state does. So if you compare the King County number for Seattle against the State number for the whole region like they were the same, then the number looks 25% higher for Seattle. Seattle is really 20% of the voters, and 25% (the factor by which the County’s number is higher)of 20% (Seattle’s portion of the region’s vote) is 5% which shows why it looks like Seattle was 25% of the vote when you compare across the sites. Sorry if it’s a bit technical.

Moral: you can’t compare the two numbers like that slanderer is. They are completely different. The same goes for the Snohomish County number.

I’m not arguing that ST2 can’t win on it’s own. I’m sure it can’t and it will some day. I’m just not sure I buy that study.

Rethink Rail not well Thought Out



An organization called Rethink Rail sponsored by Talisma Corp has come up with a plan to run heavy-rail across the existing BNSF tracks on the Eastside. It’s a pretty neat idea, and they got a tour set-up for July 17th. It’s a fairly similar plan to what Sound Transit is going to study for the area if (when!) ST2 passes. The Puget Sound Regional Counsel has a nice map of the rail line, it’s the red one. They’ve also got some “>fascinating preliminary studies of rail through that corridor.

The problems I see:
1) It’s pretty far from Downtown Bellevue, so a second transport mechanism would be required to move people from there to and from the station. It’d require either some kind of bus or secondary rail system.
2) There’s a huge section that passes outside of the growth boundary until Snohomish county, way out in the middle of no where.
3) The southern section runs right next to lake, where few people live and the (rich) people who do live there probably aren’t that interested in having stations in their neighborhoods. Actually, the rich people idea holds true for a lot of the rail on that line.

Still, I think it’s a good idea to put something there, and that area probably doesn’t have the density to support light rail.

Sound Transit Board Adopts ST2 Plan

Today Sound Transit’s board unanimously adopted the ST2 plan that will go to the ballot this November. From the press release:

Sound Transit 2’s light rail expansions build on the light rail in Sound Transit’s first phase, including the line between downtown Seattle and the airport that will open in 2009; the University of Washington extension that Sound Transit is working to start building as soon as 2008; and the Tacoma Link system that is operating today.

The Sound Transit 2 Plan adds service northward from the University of Washington to Northgate, Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood and the 164th Street/Ash Way area of Snohomish County. To the south the system would extend through Des Moines, Federal Way and Fife to the Tacoma Dome, connecting with the existing Tacoma Link light rail system. A long-awaited light rail extension across Lake Washington would serve Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond’s Overlake/Microsoft area.

Check out the finalized plan that will go on the ballot. I am definitely voting for it, even if I’m not a fan of the RTID piece. We’ll never get a sent a transit package that will make everyone happy, and the more ballots we pass, the more we show those who can do something that we want more transit.

Sound Transit expanding expansion plans

It looks like sound transit will expand its plans for light rail further than expected. The expanded light rail plan will start south of the Tacoma Dome, near where the existing Tacoma link line is now, and stretch all the way out to Mill Creek in Snohomish County. The previous plan was only to Fife and Lynnwood, and they were thinking more about Everett than Ash Way. They’d also include a line out to Bellevue and Overlake, which would likely improve my commute a bit.

They are also looking into a rail corridor on the current Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway on the Eastside. BNSF wants to sell the strip, and King County wants obtain it by having the Port of Seattle buy it, and then trading them Boeing Field. The county would wants to turn the land into a bike trail now, and later possibly investigate rail there. Boeing field would probably turn into more of a passenger airport (which Southwest has wanted for sometime, Beacon Hill residents be damned) since now it is used mostly for cargo, charter flights and private jets. Apparently if that deal falls through, Sound Transit wants to look into buying that land and making it a rail corridor from Renton to Woodinville. Hopefully they’d be smart enough to have connect with the current “Central Line” either somewhere in the city, maybe Columbia City, or at least in Tukwila.

Critics, having lived through the monorail disaster, are concerned that Sound Transit is not being realistic about the cost. I agree that Sound Transit hasn’t actually finished much of anything yet, but they have had success keeping their schedules so far, and those lines look ready to go at or around the dates they have mentioned. My big issue is the timeframe they are talking about. Why would the expansion to Ash Way in Snohomish take to 2027? That is twenty years from now! BART in the Bay Area was built in way less time than that, included a trans-bay tube, those distances are way farther, and technolody is much better now than then.

Well whatever, better late than never. More later. Vote yes on that initiative!