The city of Kirkland and the Port of Seattle are getting their pens out to finalize a deal that could seal the fate of the rail line conveyed to the port by the BNSF Railway in 2009. By purchasing 5.75 miles of the 42-mile "Eastside Corridor" from the port, the city would acquire not just the line for a multi-use trail but also the right to rip out the tracks.
The sale price is $5 million, which the city would have to raise by borrowing from its own non-transportation accounts. Development of the trail would depend on passage of a bond measure, or the receipt of outside grants.
A second reading of the port's authorization to proceed with the sale will take place at a meeting Tuesday (April 3) of the port's commissioners. If that is approved — and the first reading, on Feb. 28, sailed through on a unanimous vote — the stage will be set for the port and the city to ink the deal on April 13, with a public celebration of the purchase to take place the following day in Kirkland.
No one appears to expect the deal to fall through. The question is, Will Kirkland then remove the tracks? And if the tracks are ripped out, will it even be possible to replace them years from now, if needs for transit, commuter rail, or rail freight service become more pressing? To rail advocates, removal of the tracks would likely doom any move toward using the right of way for those services.
In 2006, then-King County Executive Ron Sims articulated the vision of “the granddaddy of all trails” in announcing the county's interest in the corridor, which runs between Snohomish and Renton. Since then, rail advocates have lost a number of battles to keep the line alive. The route was severed at I-405 in 2008 to allow for widening of the freeway from eight to 10 lanes.
The city of Redmond bought a 3.9-mile chunk of a spur track in 2010, and will use it primarily as a linear park for pedestrians. Early in 2011, a company that had taken over BNSF's freight rail service on the north end of the corridor was forced into bankruptcy and, largely because of the bankruptcy, saw federal administrators refuse its application to reactivate more of the track for freight service. A lawsuit from three Seattle residents attempting to undo the BNSF-Port of Seattle transaction that conveyed the Kirkland trackage lost on a summary judgment last December; the plaintiffs have appealed, however.
Redmond has already ripped out or covered over about a mile and a half of its track, Mayor John Marchione told Crosscut in a recent interview. In an earlier interview, he made it clear that he was not OK with freight trains coming into downtown Redmond. “Having a freight train run in your backyard is not acceptable for downtown residents,” he said.
His comment highlights the political tension surrounding neighboring Kirkland's plans: Is the right-of-way best used to move freight and rail passengers by a mode generally recognized as environmentally efficient, or does a pedestrian route make more sense, as a greater contributor to quality of life? Who, in short, gets dibs on that nice level railbed?
Those who seek more than a trail on an old railbed fear that political, financial, and legal challenges would block reinstatement of any sort of railroad once the tracks are gone, that “extinct is forever.” Indeed, this reporter could find no case of tracks ever having been relaid on an established “rail-trail” anywhere in the country.
The track conveyed by BNSF to the port is railbanked: that is, under federal law, it has been assigned to non-freight-rail uses on an interim basis, but remains available for the resumption of freight service, should that become economically viable again. Rail advocates suggest that, if the port signs a conveyance to Kirkland that does not guarantee that the rail infrastructure remains intact, the port will be reneging on its obligations under the railbanking process, which is overseen by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB).
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