11-3-06 article


Dinner train may chug on to Snohomish

Published in The Seattle Times on November 3, 2006

By Diane Brooks

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Eric Temple remembers cringing, with a guilty laugh, when he first heard "Almost Live" host John Keister’s quip on late-night TV, back in 1992

"I hear there’s a new dinner train," Temple recalls him saying. "I guess things are going great for them — except once people get to the winery, they are refusing to go back to Renton."

Temple’s Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, an early player and catalyst in the city’s downtown transformation, has helped Renton shed its old industrial, working-class image. The popular train trip to Woodinville’s Columbia Winery attracts about 100,000 visitors every year.

Now, Snohomish leaders are excited about the economy-boosting potential of a proposed new dinner-train route between Woodinville and their tourist-friendly city, which features a historic downtown already well-known among antique collectors.

"I am really, really hoping it comes," said Todd Elvig, a board member of the city’s chamber of commerce and visitor center. "They [passengers] could do a little antiquing, walk along the river — it would be wonderful."

The dinner train’s 14-year run between Renton and Woodinville is expected to end in July, due to an Interstate 405 widening that will sever the rail line through Bellevue.

The route probably was doomed anyway — because of the same political and business forces that could bring the train to Snohomish.

King County and the Port of Seattle last week revealed details of major, complex negotiations under way for months between numerous players, including the state and BNSF Railway. Elements range from a $50 million railroad-tunnel enlargement through the Cascades at Stampede Pass to a proposed 1,000-acre rail/truck transfer center to be built somewhere between Seattle and Tacoma.

Wedged in the center of all the deal-making is a proposed land swap that would give King County ownership of a 47-mile BNSF rail corridor between Snohomish and Renton.

The 33-mile King County portion — now used by the dinner train and about a dozen freight customers — would be converted to a trail. The Port of Seattle would buy the entire 47-mile line from BNSF for an estimated $100 million to $180 million, then trade it to King County for Boeing Field. The Port also would give the county $35 million to $100 million to build the trail from Woodinville to Renton.

But the 14-mile Snohomish County stretch is wide enough to allow a new trail parallel to the tracks, which serves about 17 local freight customers.

Temple, whose company also owns and manages several rail lines, hopes eventually to manage that Snohomish County stretch of rail, which could be perfect for his dinner train. Passing through rural and agricultural areas and along the edge of a wildlife reserve, it offers a more remote — and arguably more scenic — route than provided by his current Eastside trip.

Meanwhile, he’s being patient, waiting for all the deal-making to play out.

A final proposal could reach the King County Council and Seattle Port commissioners by year’s end, said Kurt Triplett, chief of staff to County Executive Ron Sims. Those bodies probably would not reach a decision until spring or summer, he said.

"I’m sitting on the sidelines with a bowl of popcorn in my lap, watching the show," Temple said.

If the proposed deals became reality, King County would seek competitive bids before awarding a railway management contract, he said.

"Would we love to have the dinner train on the Snohomish County part of the line? Absolutely we would. It’s a great tourist attraction, and it’s a great economic benefit to the region," Triplett said. A Puget Sound Regional Council committee has been studying the Renton-to-Snohomish rail corridor since 2004. While the committee generally supports converting the King County portion into a trail, members also see the wisdom of building a trail alongside working train tracks north of Woodinville, said strategic planner King Cushman.

"If the dinner train would work out, that would be icing on the cake," Cushman said. "As long as there is freight business that is still viable, why not let the dinner train use it, too?"

Diane Brooks: 425-745-7802