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The granting of GNP's petition would thus interfere with a lot of plans, but the taxpayers' lawsuit could send everyone back to the starting blocks. The suit alleges that the track the port purchased does not constitute an essential link between the port facilities and the national rail network, and that the port therefore exceeded its authority in buying it with taxpayer money. If successful, the suit would nullify the entire purchase, force BNSF to refund the purchase price of $81.45 million — and, according to the port's Skaggs, endanger “the entire set of agreements and acquisitions” affecting the Eastside line.
The port, not surprisingly, maintains that it acted within its authority. A settlement of the suit is at least several months away.
Mukilteo businessman and passenger-rail advocate Chuck Mott, who has worked with both BNSF and GNP's Payne, describes him as “strong-willed and precisely opinionated,” but also as “a very patient man and a shrewd bargainer.” A veteran of Canadian railroading, Payne has his own seconds, including businesses that want to use his service, the Greater Redmond Chamber of Commerce, and a citizens' group, Eastside Rail Now!, which has been pushing for what it terms “effective utilization” of the entire Eastside line since 2007.
A marketing firm, in its comment to the STB, identifies 20 different businesses, largely in the tourism sector, as supporting GNP's petition. “Sustainability is our underlying message,” the submission says. “GNP . . . celebrates sustainability with a transportation removing thousands of trucks . . . off the road.”
Christine Hoffman, the Redmond Chamber’s CEO, says, “What I support more than any entity is that we have to get this country back to rail. We have to do some alternative transportation, to use existing infrastructure. It's more cost-effective for both commuter and freight.”
The Redmond spur case thus offers a microcosm of the often heated debate over the entire Eastside line. The choices, in the simplest terms, number three: trains; bicycles and pedestrians; or rail-with-trail — trains and bicycles and pedestrians.
Normally 100 feet wide, U.S. rail rights-of-way usually have plenty of room for the rail-with-trail option. In one of two presentations to the Redmond City Council, GNP chief financial officer Doug Engle said, “From the very beginning GNP has supported rail and trail. We are looking for other ways to bring our excursion trains . . . to downtown Redmond. All that would take is the port and the city of Redmond’s invitation. We believe the passengers will enjoy their experience more by spending more time in the originating destination in downtown Redmond [rather than a winery north of Redmond].”
The discussions with the city went nowhere, however. “We explored a cooperative arrangement,” Mayor Marchione puts it, but GNP “wasn’t able to meet the city's needs.” Marchione declined to elaborate on discussions with Payne, citing the ongoing STB proceedings.
In California's Marin and Sonoma counties, north of San Francisco, the rail-with-trail idea has fared much better. An abandoned rail line is being developed for passenger and freight use, with a bicycle-pedestrian pathway alongside. Andy Peri, who coordinates advocacy and outreach for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, says, “All along we knew we could have the train and pathway. Having both is the best of two worlds for creating a sustainable transportation future. It's not an either-or game."
As of 2007 there were 119 rails-with-trails in the United States. Noting that he has visited the Eastside and "toured significant stretches of the line,” Peri said the dual-use configuration — encompassing the trail and both freight and passenger rail — is “absolutely technically feasible” on the Eastside. “It's also politically feasible.”
The parties in the Eastside saga nevertheless can't get to yes. Turf battles between an entrepreneur with ideas of his own and public entities with an established agenda — and perhaps an innate resistance to private-sector initiatives — may be one cause of the stalemate.
While the trail-oriented Cascade Bicycle Club is sitting out the STB battle, those opposing the petition do include the bicycle-trail community's heaviest hitter, the Washington, D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, whose website describes the organization as “committed to enhancing the health of America's environment, transportation, economy, neighborhoods and people” by creating “a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines.”
According to the organization's general counsel, Andrea Ferster, the group “is a very strong proponent of rails-with-trails. I'm not familiar enough with the facts of this case as to whether GNP is willing to accommodate a trail. That's not my understanding, that that was part of GNP's proposal.” (Although, in other contexts, GNP has stated its support for the rail-with-trail configuration, its petition indeed makes no mention of the possibility.)
Asked if her organization, before filing its comment, consulted with GNP about prospects for a cooperative solution, she said, “No, we did not do so. We were not concerning ourselves with the facts in the case, but with the precedent” an approved petition might establish, whereby GNP would acquire a regulatory right to operate rail service without a contractual right to do so from the property owner — the very unwilling port.
"If the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy knew that there was a simultaneous effort to build a trail alongside the rail, I think they'd probably support the Eastside project,” Peri comments.
For now, however, the paper war continues.
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