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Eastside rail line: Can suburbia deal with a freight train?

A freight car sits on a spur just off the main line near downtown Bellevue. Credit: Eastside Rail Now!

Parties as diverse as the city of Redmond and the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties remain locked in a struggle over the fate of the former BNSF rail line through Seattle’s eastern suburbs. At the heart of the brouhaha — and well below its surface — lies the conundrum of interest groups failing to find common ground in spite of what would seem to be shared environmental goals.

The so-called Eastside line runs from Snohomish to Renton, with a seven-mile spur veering off from Woodinville to Redmond. The BNSF Railway divested itself of all but the southernmost five miles of the line in 2009, conveying the remainder in two separate transactions to the Port of Seattle, as a “railbanked” line — that is, one given over to other interim uses but reserved under federal law for the restoration of freight service should that become economically viable again.

The port sold 3.9 miles of the Redmond spur to the city of Redmond for $10 million last June and, according to a spokeswoman, has reached agreement with King County to sell most of the remaining right-of-way within the county for $26 million. However, the centerpiece of the original deal — the trail easement the county has purchased from the port on almost all of the line within the county — has yet to be translated into a trail. Among other things, the county has yet to corral the money to finance the undertaking. The vision first articulated in 2006 by then-King County Executive Ron Sims, to build “the granddaddy of all trails” on the route, thus has many a mile to go.

Complicating the matter further is a class-action lawsuit filed against the port last month on behalf of the port district’s taxpayers. The suit alleges that the port exceeded its legal authority in purchasing the northern part of the line, the Redmond spur included. If that suit succeeds, ownership of about 22 miles of the line will revert to BNSF.

A freight railroad, GNP Rly, currently runs trains on the northern end of the line, between Snohomish and Woodinville, and expects to launch an excursion train between a Woodinville winery and Snohomish in June. It has announced ambitious plans to reintroduce freight service on the entire corridor “portion-by-portion, on our schedule, as finances and events would allow” and “to provide common carrier, ‘commuter’ service throughout the corridor,” in the words of president Tom Payne.

More immediately, GNP wishes to expand its freight operation to deliver a small amount of freight — well under one carload a day — to businesses along the Redmond spur. It petitioned the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) in August to acquire common-carrier operating rights on the entire spur.

In response, the various litigants have lined up for and against such a use of the dormant rail infrastructure — at a time when concern over carbon emissions has focused attention on the environmental advantages of rail transportation. A freight locomotive’s fuel efficiency, per ton-mile moved, is typically three to four times that of a tractor-trailer.

The STB case has thus become a testing ground. In an unusual move, the board’s original railbanking decision, delivered in 2009, extended the right to restart freight service on the line not to the railroad — BNSF — as the board typically does, but to King County, the foreseen trail operator, which has no interest in running a freight railroad. The decision found, however, that the unusual arrangement “would not preclude any other service provider from seeking Board authorization to restore active rail service.” GNP is now seeking to turn that finding into a business reality.

King County, however, is not prepared to abide the threat to its restart right. The city of Redmond, the port and Sound Transit have joined in, buttressing the county’s opposition to the petition.

So why do institutions here in the Emerald City and the Evergreen State find a freight train, for all its carbon efficiency, anathema? Redmond mayor John Marchione, whose city has spent $85,000 fighting the GNP’s plans, says simply that he is not OK with freight trains coming into downtown Redmond.

“Freight trains normally run at night, and we’re building our urban center as a place to live, and having a freight train run in your backyard is not acceptable for downtown residents.”

Asked if he considered his city’s position pro-environment, he said, “I’m not answering environmental — I’m trying to look at the whole thing. Holistically, this can be a real place for gathering, in our downtown. We as the landowners want to protect those uses.” 

One of the most vociferous comments submitted in writing to the STB came in a 689-page document filed by King County. The county titled one chapter “The Board should not Grant any of GNP’s Petitions because Its So-Called Freight Service is a Thinly Veiled Attempt to Obtain Immunity from Local Regulation for Its Proposed Passenger Excursion and Commuter Services.” The presentation concluded by terming GNP’s filings abusive. 

Sound Transit’s rejoinder, while lower-decibel, makes its position quite clear, calling on the board to find, among other things, that it lacks jurisdiction to allow GNP to operate any intrastate passenger service. Sound Transit’s planned East Link light-rail expansion would use about a mile of the BNSF route’s main line in Bellevue, and about a half-mile of the Redmond spur. It is unclear whether STB’s jurisdiction over passenger operations, which is quite limited, would have any meaning should commuter rail become an immediate prospect, but Sound Transit is taking no chances. 

GNP chief financial officer Doug Engle accuses the transit provider of having “stonewalled us by not meeting to engage in meaningful dialogue other than once,” regarding GNP’s interface with East Link and Sound Transit generally. 

“We’re not going to get into back-and-forth,” responds Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray. “We have a voter-mandated project in East Link. We need to move forward. We support Redmond’s stance.” 

In its two-page filing, the port noted that the license it has given GNP to run excursion trains on 2.5 miles of port-owned Redmond spur track specifically prohibits GNP from setting out a single freight car along that track. The port goes on to note that neither it nor Redmond plans to give GNP property rights to use any tracks for freight purposes. 

Asked about environmental policy goals and the port’s purposes in opposing GNP, port spokeswoman Charla Skaggs said the filing did not involve a policy decision. “This is a legal issue,” she said, noting the port’s commitment to sustainability and “our investment in freight projects.” 

Asked a similar question, Sung Yang, director of external affairs and government relations for King County, also shifted the perspective. “The region spent a lot of time to explore the uses of the corridor. After that whole lengthy discussion, all the parties — the port, Sound Transit, the county — determined it is in the public interest to preserve the whole alignment for trails and utilities, and exploring the possibility of high-density transit, for future use.”  

This “dual-use outcome,” he said, does not include freight rail. “It’s the public that has rights to this corridor, not GNP. It was not the goal to have it available for a private operator to run for private profit.”

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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