1-30-07 article

Rail-to-trail plan sparks debate over Eastside line

By Keith Ervin
Seattle Times staff reporter

The BNSF Railway’s Renton-to-Snohomish line is in bad shape.

Only one track runs along most of the 42-mile corridor.

Its sharp curves, street crossings and deteriorating tracks force trains to keep speeds low — no more than 10 to 30 mph.

When the railway diverted freight trains to the local line after a 1997 storm washed out parts of the main line along Puget Sound, one train derailed.

King County Executive Ron Sims’ effort to acquire the Eastside line for a walking and biking trail has sparked debate over whether the old rails are worthless and should be torn up.

While Sims, a born-again bicyclist, says the trail eventually could be paired with passenger trains on new tracks, some critics want to keep the existing line.

Protesters from the rail-advocacy group All Aboard Washington showed up at a committee meeting of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) this month to say the existing line should be retained as the first step toward building a modern passenger and freight-rail corridor.

The PSRC advisory committee instead endorsed Sims’ plan for a biking and hiking trail, which could allow BNSF Railway to tear out the old rails. The committee also said the corridor should be preserved for possible future rail transit in a "rails with trails" arrangement.

PSRC strategic-policy adviser King Cushman dismisses the idea of using the old tracks for high-capacity passenger trains. "To be honest," he says, "you could ride a bicycle faster than you could take that train."

Railroad and national-parks historian Al Runte, an All Aboard Washington member who calls the Eastside rail line "the railroad equivalent of Interstate 405," says trail advocates are exaggerating the difficulty of fixing up the line for freight and commuter trains.

Metropolitan King County Councilman Larry Phillips wants to see passenger rail developed in the near future, warning that Sims’ "trails first" approach might make it impossible to bring back rail later.

"I think of trying to convert the Burke-Gilman Trail back into a rail line," Phillips says. "Politically, it won’t go."

If the county acquires the rail line, Phillips says, high-capacity transit and possibly freight trains should run beside the trail "from the get-go."

"It’s an irreplaceable transportation corridor," he says.

BNSF told the state in 2003 it wanted to sell the line, and King County paid for exclusive bargaining rights in 2005. If the county and the railway can’t reach an agreement, BNSF could sell off the corridor piecemeal.

But Sims’ plan to acquire the rail line hinges on a complex deal in which the Port of Seattle would buy the property and trade it to the county in exchange for the county-owned airport, Boeing Field.

BNSF and the Port also want the deal to include development of a 500- to 1,000-acre truck-to-train freight yard somewhere between Seattle and Tacoma where shipping containers would move between trucks and trains. (The 42-mile-long rail corridor has sometimes been described as 47 miles long, a figure that includes the length of double tracks on a portion of the corridor.)

Fewer than 10 industrial customers still use the Eastside rail line, most of them from Woodinville north. Spirit of Washington Dinner Train owner Eric Temple hopes to move to a Snohomish-to-Woodinville route when the Renton-to-Woodinville line closes in July for Interstate 405 construction.

The PSRC’s Cushman says raising the height of the Stampede Pass tunnel to carry double-stack trains through the Cascade Mountains would do more to improve regional freight movement than upgrading the Renton-to-Snohomish line.

Upgrading the Eastside line to handle freight trains and passenger trains at higher speeds on a double set of tracks could cost "several hundred million dollars," Cushman says. It also would mean shutting down busy Northeast Eighth Street east of downtown Bellevue and Northeast 124th Street in Totem Lake each time a train rumbled through.

The best way to accommodate a trail and transit on the same route would be to elevate a new two-way track like Sound Transit’s rail line under construction along Interstate 5 and Highway 518 near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Cushman says. That would be costly, though — at least $150 million per mile, according to PSRC estimates.

The existing line, far from being the rail equivalent of I-405, is actually "the rail equivalent of a one-lane country road filled with potholes," says Sims’ chief of staff, Kurt Triplett. "It’s a one-track, dilapidated rail line."

A north-south rail-transit line east of Lake Washington isn’t in the plans of the state Department of Transportation or Sound Transit for at least 20 years, if ever. In the meantime, those agencies will rely on "bus rapid transit" using HOV lanes and direct-access entrances and exits on I-405.

If voters approve Sound Transit’s Phase 2 plan in November, it would raise the agency’s share of the sales tax to the maximum state law allows — nine-tenths of 1 percent — to extend light rail from Seattle to Bellevue and the Overlake area.

Sound Transit’s long-range plan calls for "potential rail extensions" from Burien and Renton up to Bothell and Lynnwood sometime after 2027. Although plans show the rail line generally following I-405 on the Eastside, no route has been picked.

Because the BNSF line bypasses downtown Bellevue and doesn’t go to Bothell or Lynnwood at all, Sound Transit planners say it’s not clear it would make a good light-rail route.

To Phillips’ plea to build light rail immediately, his County Council colleague Julia Patterson, who chairs the PSRC advisory committee, asks: "If there was somebody who wanted to put high-capacity transit in there today, bring them on. Where are they?"

Sims says there’s another problem with acquiring the rail line for the purpose of operating trains of any kind: It could raise the price of the corridor four to five times higher.

That shouldn’t be a deal-killer, says rail promoter Runte: "Let’s say (BNSF) says it wants $500 million for this corridor: It’s still cheap at that price. At a billion dollars, it’s a cheap price for the use."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com
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