04-16-08 article

Railway corridor from Snohomish to Renton to keep tracks
By Ashley Bach
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The tracks will be preserved on the 42-mile BNSF Railway corridor from Snohomish to Renton, which could get commuter rail running on the line sooner and cheaper, according to rail advocates.

The Port of Seattle, which is in negotiations to buy the rail corridor from BNSF later this year, wants to keep the tracks. The other parties involved in the deal, including the Metropolitan King County Council and County Executive Ron Sims, also have agreed to preserve the tracks.

Sims earlier had said he wanted to tear out the tracks to make room for a recreational trail along the corridor and perhaps a new rail line later. In a letter to the County Council this week, he outlined plans for a "dual-use" corridor, with a trail and some sort of motorized transport, such as rail, running side by side.

"One of our primary objectives is to ensure that both transportation and trail uses are possible," Sims wrote.

Just about everyone, including rail advocates, agrees that the old tracks would not work for a commuter rail line and will need to be torn out eventually. But keeping the tracks would preserve the ballast underneath and make it much easier to install new, modern tracks, said Bruce Agnew, director of the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center think tank, which has pushed for commuter rail.

Rail advocates were worried that if the tracks were removed, a trail would be built right down the middle of the corridor and leave no room for a rail line to return, Agnew said.

The Legislature this year approved $100,000 for a study to see if potential ridership is high enough to pursue a commuter rail line on the BNSF corridor.

Sims sent the proposed BNSF deal this week to the County Council, and the Port Commission also will consider the deal in the next few weeks. BNSF says it wants the deal approved by May 15 and closed by the end of the year.

Under the proposal, the Port of Seattle would buy the corridor from BNSF for about $107 million. King County would pay the Port $1.9 million for an easement on the corridor from Renton to just south of Woodinville.

Because the tracks would be preserved, BNSF added $2 million to the purchase price, according to Sims’ letter. BNSF had planned to tear up the tracks and sell them for scrap, and wanted compensation for the lost revenue, said Rod Brandon, the county’s director of environmental sustainability.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com