2-26-07 article

Preliminary deal reached to turn rail line into trail

By Keith Ervin
Published in the Seattle Times on February 26, 2007

King County, the Port of Seattle and BNSF Railway executives signed a preliminary deal this morning intended to turn the 40-mile Renton- to- Snohomish rail line into a recreational trail.

The trail would be designed as a "dual-use facility" that could accommodate a high-capacity passenger rail line sometime in the future, said one of the architects of the deal, County Executive Ron Sims. If a final deal is reached in the coming months, the Port would pay $103 million for the rail line, then swap it with King County in exchange for county-owed Boeing Field. The Port would also give the county $66 million to build a biking and hiking trail south of the Snohomish County line. Freight trains would continue to run between Woodinville and Snohomish.

With U.S. Sen. Patty Murray looking on, Sims, Port of Seattle CEO Mic Dinsmore and BNSF CEO Matt Rose signed two memorandums of understanding that also call for projects intended to move more cargo by rail from Puget Sound ports to markets in the Midwest.

The county, the railroad and the Port agreed to support expansion of the Stampede Pass rail tunnel to handle higher-volume freight trains and to find a site for a large "intermodal yard" where cargo could be moved between trucks and trains. After a site is acquired, King County would sell a Harbor Island property it owns to the Port to be used as a container shipping yard.

If the region doesn’t improve its capacity to move freight quickly, Seattle and Tacoma are at risk of losing much of their Pacific Rim trade to Canada, which is aggressively developing its ports and its rail system, Rose said. "This project is crucial to the economic vibrancy of our region," Sims said.

Sen. Murray praised Sims, Dinsmore and Rose for their "great creativity" in keeping the rail corridor intact. "We’re not just going to sit back and watch while part of an important corridor is sold off piecemeal," she said.

If King County and the Port hadn’t come up with a proposal to buy the little-used Eastside rail line, Rose said, BNSF would have sold the corridor to developers and "you would have seen high-rise condos and expensive houses." "Let’s get ‘er done now," Rose said after inking the preliminary deal.

"This starts the tough negotiations," said Dinsmore, who will retire soon after handing the Port’s reins over to former Oakland port director Tay Yoshitani Thursday.

Critics blasted King County’s plan to tear out most of the existing rail line to accommodate a trail. Al Runte of the pro-rail group All Aboard Washington called the plan "a colossal mistake. It’s the dumbest idea this region has had." Runte said he had walked the entire length of the proposed trail and concluded, "It’s not a dilapidated rail line. It’s a beautiful track."

But Port chief Dinsmore said turning the 116-plus-year-old rail line into a trail is "the right thing. … But we can never, ever, ever forget the fact that it’s a rail system first and a trail system second."

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