Reaction to trail swap spotlights manufacturing’s dwindling role on the Eastside
Rail change: Will last factory turn out the lights?
by Steve Wilhelm
When local politicians recently proposed converting the Eastside’s rail corridor into a hiking and biking trail, the few manufacturers using the rail line barely murmured in protest, reflecting heavy industry’s diminishing presence on the Eastside.
"The trend for the future is for more office use than light industrial or manufacturing use," said Kirkland Senior Planner Janice Soloff.
But in Bellevue, near the heart of one of King County’s most developed areas, lies one potential obstacle to the proposed trail. Weyerhaeuser Co. operates a 174,400-square-foot box manufacturing plant connected to the rail line by a spur, a few blocks south of State Route 520 and east of Interstate 405.
The 40-year-old plant, which employs 125, makes a type of waxed cardboard carton used in the agriculture and seafood packing industries, and is economically dependent on daily rail car shipments of raw paper and wax, said Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal.
"We want to remain at this location, this is a key plant for us, and the rail link is vital to remain competitive there," Mendizabal said. "Our position is that we are opposed to the process to abandon the line."
King County Executive Ron Sims, in collaboration with Port of Seattle Executive Director Mic Dinsmore, in late October proposed the complex deal: The port would buy the rail line from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and then trade it to the county to be used for a trail, in return for King County Airport (also known as Boeing Field).
The deal would include enlarging the Stampede Pass railroad tunnel through the Cascade Mountains, to allow double-stack container trains to pass through from Puget Sound ports to Midwest destinations.
The key priority is to find the best use of the rail line once Weyerhaeuser abandons it, said King Cushman, regional strategy adviser for the Puget Sound Regional Council. The point is to keep the right-of-way available for public use, in whatever form is best now and in the future, and not have it chopped up into private parcels. He said an advisory committee, with representatives from railroad, environmental groups, government, business and biking groups, has been meeting to consider possibilities.
"What we’re doing is very methodically going along and looking at options there," Cushman said, adding that from his point of view the railroad company’s abandonment of the line seems inevitable.
"The reason BN is getting out is because there has been a a change in the business," Cushman said. "The industrial businesses along that line have been fading away, going to places where there is lower-priced land."
Triple the cost
While Weyerhaeuser’s Mendizabal said trucks could bring in the 1,100-pound rolls of paper from which the plant fabricates boxes, a switch to trucks would triple the cost of bringing in the raw materials upon which the plant depends. The paper is manufactured at a Weyerhaeuser plant in Oklahoma, and brought by rail directly to the Bellevue plant.
The plant already delivers its finished boxes by truck, many of them to farmers around Washington state.
But Weyerhaeuser’s issues seem far away to the economic development directors for Bellevue and Kirkland, the two largest King County cities through which most of the rail route passes.
Robert Derrick, director of economic development for Bellevue, said he really wasn’t sure who the current active Bellevue users of the line are, or how important the rail line may be to them.
Hiking and biking
He said the Bellevue City Council hasn’t yet taken a formal position on the proposed swap. While a few businesses may lose rail access if the line is abandoned, he said, a hiking-and-biking trail built along the route can have its own economic benefits.
"It can generate business," he said. "If people use the trail, you could get businesses along there catering to trail use — bike rentals, skate rentals, people selling drinks and food along the trail."
Soloff, the Kirkland senior planner, said her city’s view is that industrial use of the rail line through Kirkland is passé, adding that she knows of no Kirkland companies using the line.
The company decided in late 2003 that it wanted to move away from operating the line. This is parallel with a years’ long trend by Burlington Northern and other major railroads nationwide to abandon spur lines as unprofitable, while focusing resources on long-haul routes that carry mostly intermodal containers and bulk cargoes such as grain and coal.
"The traffic base has dwindled, and more than anything because of increasing real estate values and changing land use patterns around the tracks," said Jerry Johnson, assistant vice president for network development for Burlington Northern Santa Fe in Fort Worth, Texas. "There are car dealerships and interior design showrooms where there used to be railroad shippers, in Bellevue and Kirkland."
Johnson said his company is talking with Weyerhaeuser and other railroad-using companies about a "range of options" to meet their needs, although he declined to say what those options might be.
"We view that as highly confidential," he said. "We think we can accommodate all the active shippers on that line."
Johnson added that the company has formally applied only to abandon a one-half mile stretch of the railroad that crosses Interstate 405 just south of Bellevue. This rail overpass forms a structure commonly referred to as the Wilburton Tunnel, which is to be removed as part of the widening of the highway.
Removal of this overpass will sever one end of the Eastside rail line, eliminating access from the south from the main Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line, which parallels Interstate 5 from Seattle south but slightly to the east.
Last access point
That will mean the only remaining rail access to the winding single-track Eastside line between Woodinville and I-405 will be from the town of Snohomish, where the Eastside line intersects another Burlington Northern line heading east from Everett over Stevens Pass.
Burlington Northern spokesman Gus Melonas said the Eastside line carries material for about 10 customers, with the railroad providing the local service six days a week.
While Safeway and Boeing also are listed as major users, Safeway is selling its 36-acre distribution in Bellevue. And the Sims proposal includes money to pay for a new bridge in Renton that will give Boeing better access to its 737 plant there for the largest 737 fuselages, and allow it to stop using the line.
From Woodinville north, about seven companies use the line, including Plywood Supply and BlueLinx Inc., both building materials suppliers, and Spectrum Glass.
Between Renton and Woodinville, there’s almost no pointed business opposition to BN’s plan to abandon its rail line there, except for Weyerhaeuser.
From Woodinville north, where there are several companies with some dependence on the railway, at least one company CEO is uneasily watching the process.
Charles Seel, CEO of Spectrum Glass Co., hopes his company isn’t left without rail access if plans go through to develop the segment of the trail from Woodinville north to the town of Snohomish. The current proposal is to develop a parallel rail and trail system, separated by a fence, to the north of Woodinville.
Seel’s company, which he considers the largest producer of stained glass in the world, depends on deliveries by seven rail cars a week, six of them carrying sand and one carrying potash, he said. He said he hopes that a trail north of Woodinville would be in addition to the rail line, but adds that "proposals have been all over the map," and the unknown is worrying.
"Sand is over half of the ingredients to make glass," he said. "If we don’t get it in by rail, you’d have to find an alternative means of transporting it at a more expensive rate."
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