7-18-07 article


BNSF rebuffs private offer


By Keith Ervin Seattle Times staff reporter

Published in The Seattle Times on July 18, 2007


Chuck Mott is chairman of All Aboard Washington, which is fighting a county plan to tear up the tracks and install a trail. Sims wants to pick up speed on land-swap deal BNSF Railway has rebuffed — at least for now — an offer from rail-preservation activists to buy a Tukwila-to-Snohomish rail line that has become the subject of a political tug of war.

All Aboard Washington made an offer Friday to buy the line for an undisclosed price, in conjunction with an unnamed business partner. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said Tuesday the railroad instead will try to wrap up a three-way deal under which the Port of Seattle would pay $103 million for the 42-mile Renton-to-Snohomish portion of the line and trade it to King County for county-owned Boeing Field. The Port would give the county $66 million to build a trail from Renton to Woodinville.

County Executive Ron Sims proposes to earmark the corridor for future rail transit. Railway officials have told All Aboard Washington "that we will continue to exclusively discuss the line’s status with King County and that we are not considering other offers," Melonas said. BNSF has extended King County’s exclusive negotiating rights several times, said Kurt Triplett, Sims’ chief of staff.

All Aboard Washington Chairman Chuck Mott said it isn’t clear that Port of Seattle commissioners and Metropolitan King County Council members will approve the land swap. If it falls through, he said, negotiations between his nonprofit group and BNSF might take place.

All Aboard Washington, formerly the Washington Association of Rail Passengers, has fought Sims’ plans to tear out the existing track, which he says can’t support high-capacity transit. All Aboard Washington, the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center and the Bellevue-based Talisma Corp. hosted a bus tour of the southern portion of the rail corridor Tuesday to bolster their claim that 180-passenger "diesel multiple units" could begin operating almost immediately. Standing in front of the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train at the downtown Renton railroad depot, rail advocate Al Runte, who is running for Seattle City Council, declared, "For $30 million, we could have equipment, tracks upgraded and operational. We could do it in 60 days. We could have commuter rail on this track in 60 days."

Among the tour guests was state Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, who said, "I can’t imagine taking these tracks out. I can’t imagine it. We’re spending billions to bring the [Sound Transit light-rail] track from the airport to downtown Seattle. This track is already here." Studies conducted for the Puget Sound Regional Council suggest the best way to provide high-capacity commuter service would be with a two-way elevated rail line costing $150 million a mile.

If All Aboard Washington bought the track, Mott said, freight and passenger trains would be operated by a "seasoned, experienced" short-line rail operator. That operator, whom Mott declined to name because of a nondisclosure agreement, studied the corridor and concluded that $8 million in track upgrades would allow passenger trains to travel at 25 to 30 miles an hour. "If it’s handled by the private sector, you start making incremental improvements and additional investments and upgrades to achieve the level of service that you ultimately want to provide," Mott said.

Triplett questioned rail advocates’ cost estimates. He said a meeting scheduled to discuss All Aboard Washington’s ideas and costs was canceled by the citizen group. Triplett said government would be more responsive to citizen concerns than would a private firm: "Who would you rather have decide how many trains should be coming through the Eastside: a combination of King County and Sound Transit, or a private entity whose goals you don’t know about?" Negotiators for BNSF, the county and the Port are "very close" to completing a purchase and sale agreement, Triplett said.

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