10-25-06 article


Let’s make a deal: Boeing Field for trails


Published in the Seattle Times:October 25, 2006

By Alwyn Scott and Sharon Pian Chan

Seattle Times staff reporters

Call it the local land swap of the century — maybe.

Under a deal many months in the making, the Port of Seattle would acquire Boeing Field from King County and in exchange would give the county a 47-mile Eastside rail corridor for recreational use.

It’s still just a concept.

It faces many hurdles: regulatory, financial, business and political.

But King County Executive Ron Sims and Port of Seattle Chief Executive Mic Dinsmore presented it as a vital transaction at a news conference Wednesday that even surprised one of the county’s biggest private employers — Boeing, whose operations in both Renton and Boeing Field could feel the impact.

"This is by far the most ambitious initiative taken in a generation," Sims said, putting the value of the land transfer at hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are several key pieces to the deal:

The Port would take over management of King County International Airport, a general- aviation hub also known as Boeing Field. The Port already owns and operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

In return, the Port would buy a key Renton-to-Everett line owned by BNSF Railway, and give it to the county, paying for creation of a recreational trail. That would create the largest greenway since the Mountains to Sound Greenway was set up in 1991 to protect forest views along Interstate 90, Sims said. But he said it’s not certain whether trains might still run on part of the corridor.

The Port also would gain some waterfront land where it could build a new rail yard, helping it become a stronger competitor to other West Coast ports that have been taking business from Seattle this year. The Port also would benefit from rail improvements to let double-stacked trains cross Stampede Pass in the Cascades on a track owned by BNSF between Seattle and Ellensburg, for which Gov. Christine Gregoire pledged $25 million in state funds.

The complex deal offers something for both the Port and county. Boeing Field is barely in the black after several money-losing years, so Sims may welcome the opportunity to swap it for a popular amenity. For the Port, the deal provides control of a potentially competing airport, and also results in long-sought rail improvements.

Sims and Dinsmore said they broached the swap idea last year, a month after another proposal to reshape Boeing Field was rejected. Southwest Airlines had proposed moving to Boeing Field to avoid high fees at Sea-Tac; the Port fought that idea vigorously.

In outlining the plan Wednesday, Dinsmore stressed its complexity and many obstacles.

Among them:

• Political approval. The ports of Seattle and Tacoma, the state, the King County Council, railroads and possibly the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies would need to sign off.

• Business impacts. Boeing uses the Eastside rail line to move fuselage pieces between Renton and Everett.

• Cost. Sims’ office estimates the airport is worth at least $200 million. The rail corridor to be acquired from BNSF Railway is valued at about $100 million to $180 million. Sims said the county otherwise would have had to raise taxes to buy the property.

"We haven’t even gone down the path to decide where the money comes from," Dinsmore said.

Despite those concerns, the two leaders said they are determined to press ahead, and warned of dire consequences for Seattle’s Port and the region if the swap doesn’t happen.

"This concept agreement required everyone to give something up," Sims said. And he added: "Speed is key."

If the region doesn’t pursue this, Sims said, "We’ll see Long Beach [Calif.], L.A., Portland, San Francisco, Vancouver [B.C.] be the place to go because they were faster. This required breaking the mold."

The Port, which has seen cargo volume fall this year as shippers route to Los Angeles and Long Beach, considers the deal vital to Seattle’s competitiveness.

"As you look at growth, what the constraint will be is rail capacity," Dinsmore said.

The new rail yard would speed transfer of cargo containers from ships to trains. The Port already has such a yard, operated by BNSF.

And expanding Stampede Pass would allow rail companies to send double-stacked freight trains through.

At Boeing Field, some airplane-service businesses voiced fears that having the Port as their landlord would bring higher fees that would drive away jobs. "If they take the same approach at Boeing Field they take at Sea-Tac, it will be very detrimental to the area, because the costs here, if anything, should be lowered," said Joe Clark, chief executive of Boeing Field-based Aviation Partners. The business develops winglets that make commercial jets more efficient.

Boeing is the biggest tenant at Boeing Field, leasing property at the airfield and delivering its 737 narrowbodies there. "Boeing will wait and see how the discussions between the Port of Seattle and King County develop," said spokesman Peter Conte, who learned about the Boeing Field piece of the swap from a reporter.

As for the Eastside rail line, Boeing and BNSF have discussed an alternative rail route to bring the newest and largest 737 fuselages to the Renton plant, and BNSF has pledged the current track would remain open at least until the alternate route is available, he said.

The plan found some immediate political support. In a statement, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the plan "represents the kind of forward thinking that will help secure a brighter future for our region."

Gregoire said the plan "anticipates future demands on our transportation system and will help to efficiently move our high-quality Washington agricultural products to the global market."

But others were more skeptical. King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, R-Federal Way, said the plan "opened up a Pandora’s box of questions" about how the Boeing Field transfer would affect airspace from Magnolia to South King County.

Dinsmore said there are no plans to move commercial air service. "It would not be our intent to do anything different than what we so adamantly argued against last year," when Southwest Airlines proposed moving to Boeing Field, he said. The Port could consider expanding service to Boeing Field when Sea-Tac hits capacity, but he doesn’t expect that to happen until 2020.

One Port commissioner said the cost and potential loss of the rail corridor appeared misguided. "It looks to me to be a very sad day for the future of transportation in King County, and a sad day for King County taxpayers, who are going to be paying more than they should for this right of way," Port Commissioner Alec Fisken said. King County taxpayers pay about $60 million annually in property taxes to fund the Port.

"It’s certainly a creative idea," said King County Councilman Bob Ferguson, D-Seattle, who chairs the capital-budget committee.

"But the bottom line is whether it’s a good deal for King County taxpayers."

Times staff reporter Dominic Gates contributed to this report.

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or ascott@seat



County eyes massive trails deal: Complicated land swap would transfer Boeing field to port, Eastside rail corridor to county


Published in the King County Journal October 26, 2006

By Dean A. Radford

Journal Reporter

In a complicated deal stretching from the Cascades to the Seattle waterfront, King County would acquire the 47-mile Eastside railroad corridor — from the Port of Seattle.

In turn and in payment, the county would transfer ownership of King County International Airport (Boeing Field) to the port, which already operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Details of the major land swap proposal were revealed Wednesday by county Executive Ron Sims and Mic Dinsmore, the chief executive officer of the Port of Seattle. Both said more work needs to be done before an agreement is sent to the King County Council and Port of Seattle Commission for approval.

The benefits include support for billions of dollars in economic activity for the region and preservation of something unique —an uninterrupted stretch of open space that would link the cities of the Eastside.

Right now, the corridor, which the county wants to save from development and eventually develop as a trail, is owned by the BNSF Railway Co.

The railroad announced in 2003 that it wanted to divest itself of the corridor from just north of Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park in north Renton to southern Snohomish County.

But BNSF’s plans put at risk the future of the popular Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, since it’s uncertain whether a regional plan for the corridor would include joint rail and trail use.

The dinner train’s owner, Eric Temple, has announced that starting in August, 2007, that he will no long depart from Renton for the trip to the Columbia Winery in Woodinville. He also recently said he has abandoned Bellevue as a possible departure site.

The land deal doesn’t really change the equation for the dinner train, because the county would still own the corridor and what options the regional committee would suggest are still under study.

Under the current thinking, the county would buy the corridor once BNSF abandons its obligation to use it for freight traffic. Under the scenario announced Wednesday, the railroad would instead sell the corridor to the Port of Seattle.

The port now has something the county wants — the rail corridor — and the county has something the port wants — Boeing Field. This sets up the proposed trade.

The county wouldn’t have to use taxpayers’ dollars to finance the corridor purchase. Sims called the arrangement "an innovative partnership."

The port also would pay the costs of developing the corridor as a recreational trail.

Council member Julia Patterson of SeaTac, who chairs a regional committee on the railroad corridor, in a statement Wednesday expressed support for the land deal, especially because it preserves the corridor.

Another trail supporter, Larry Phillips, the council’s chairman, struck a note of caution. He called for a careful analysis of the trade.

"We need to ensure value for the dollar is received and public benefit realized over the long term before any decision is made," he said in a statement.

The county is still trying to figure out how much the rail corridor is worth, but some estimates place it at about $300 million.

"The rail corridor will give us added quality of life and a legacy that will be seen as visionary in the future," Sims said.

Dinsmore, the port executive, indicated Wednesday that port representatives would meet with residents near Boeing Field and the businesses there to discuss long-term planning for the airport.

"We also want to put to rest any fear that Boeing Field might become a busy passenger airport," he said.

Sims had raised the possibility of passenger flights into Boeing Field, but the controversial idea was later dropped.

Sims has set aside about $650,000 for maintenance in the $12.8 million airport budget he has proposed for 2007. About 45 county employees work at the airport.

The Port of Seattle also oversees port operations on the Seattle waterfront.

The port also would like to buy the former Fisher Flour Mill site on Harbor Island to help consolidate its operations. However, the county purchased the site in 2003 for a new rail facility that would serve as a transfer point for the region’s garbage to landfills in eastern Washington or out of state. Before the port could buy the mill, another site for the transfer facility would have to be found.

The new transfer station is a key component of a countywide plan to handle the county’s garbage once the Cedar Hills Landfill reaches capacity, expected in 2012.

Also on the table is $25 million from the state to go toward track improvements on Stampede Pass. The track is owned and operated by BNSF.

Gus Melonas, a spokesman for railroad, declined to comment on specifics of an agreement raised at the Wednesday press conference. The railroad typically offers little comment on its business dealings.

"We are working with the port, the state and King County on a number of issues that would improve rail capacity," Melonas said. "There is no agreement that has been reached at this point."

Dean Radford covers King County. He can be reached at dean.radford@kingcountyjournal.com or 253-872-6719.