Port on track to purchase BNSF corridor
by Jeanette Knutson
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 email@example.com.
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.”