Eastside trail: Will rail ever return?

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

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).

In conjunction with the 2009 deal, the port sold the county an easement on the right-of-way, for the trail development as Sims had envisaged. (Lack of financing has bogged down that development.) The agreement between the port and county noted “the parties’ intent that the property be used for regional recreational trail and other transportation purposes, including …  rail.” In a 2010 deposition for the Seattle residents’ lawsuit, Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton, now the commission chair, stated that “the reason for that paragraph was to make it explicit that the rail had to be preserved; that you couldn’t have just a recreational trail.”

She added, however, that the language was “absolutely imperative” to the BNSF-Port of Seattle deal because “the Surface Transportation Board only gives the approval if, in fact, you are preserving the ability for rail to be in perpetuity.”

In a separate declaration in the same lawsuit, she stated that the entire Eastside corridor “is critical to the region’s and nation’s transportation infrastructure” in the context of freight and passenger traffic and national security purposes.

Kirkland resident Will Knedlik, a former Democratic state representative who leads an ad hoc group known as Eastside Rail, favors keeping the rails intact; he isn’t satisfied. The port “appears to be speaking out of both sides of its mouth when they say under oath it’s an essential piece of rail infrastructure, and then allow its purchase so that Kirkland can pull up the tracks,” Knedlik said.

Tarleton could not be reached by press time, but port spokeswoman Charla Skaggs stated in an e-mail that railbanking “does not require that the physical tracks remain. … Should the STB choose to reactivate the corridor for freight use, the owner must make it available for that use. Future freight use would always preempt any other use of the corridor.”

“The port,” Skaggs continued, “purchased the corridor specifically to ensure that its status as a freight corridor was protected for the region. Subsequent sales to partners such as Kirkland and Redmond do not change that purpose and do not jeopardize the corridor’s railbanked status.”

Knedlik spoke with Crosscut in advance of a Thursday evening meeting of the Kirkland Transportation Commission that considered a staff recommendation for yanking out the iron, but he said he was not planning to attend the session. He noted that he’d already attended three commission meetings. “They appear to have made up their minds [to remove the tracks], and there’s no use for me to go back a fourth time,” he stated.

At the meeting, the commission reached a consensus recommendation that “we should plan to remove [the rails] in early 2013, unless there’s some sort of concrete, viable use for the rails that would operate by 2013, and where such a plan is consistent” with Kirkland’s interests, Kirkland transportation engineering manager David Godfrey told Crosscut.

Knedlik and his allies plan, however, to make their presence felt Tuesday at the port’s meeting, when the port commission will decide whether to go forward with the sale. And he is not prepared to throw in the towel if the sale proceeds. Any plans conducive to the removal of the rails “will be resisted,” he said. He declined to elaborate, saying, “I want to see what actions they take.”

“I applaud Kirkland” for its trail-building intentions, he said, “as long as they don’t rip the track out.”

As a sort of place-holder until plans for transit or commuter rail mature, rail advocates have advanced the possibility of a private operator running a holiday train reminiscent of the Spirit of Washington dinner train, which ran on the corridor until 2007, or taking bicyclists to exurban cycling trails or wine-lovers to Woodinville wineries. The rail activists also stress they are not anti-trail — that the right-of-way can accommodate rail and foot-powered modes alike.

Since both rails and trail will fit within a typical right-of-way, the modes coexist in many places. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, more than 140 such dual-use corridors exist across the country, with trains zipping by foot-powered travelers at up to 150 mph.

The rails could also be covered with surfacing that could be excavated years from now, allowing trains to return. Rails can also be embedded in a paved surface, allowing what’s in between them to be used for other modes. Passenger and freight trains run down city streets in many U.S. cities — Amtrak runs in the street in Oakland, Calif., for example — while streetcars by definition inhabit public thoroughfares; in New Orleans, trolleys run down an inviting sward of grass.

Many in Kirkland appear skeptical of such alternatives. In an online posting, resident Shawn Etchevers argued against any inclusion of motorized transportation in the municipal vision for the corridor, describing the dual-use scenario as tantamount to “creating something comparable to the James Bond’s car, that could fly and be a submarine at the same time.”

Kirkland City Councilmember Bob Sternoff described the track removal as just “one of the options” and stressed that no Rubicons had yet been crossed. But he told Crosscut that the city is preparing a request for proposals “to have the tracks removed and recycled. We are stewards of the public’s money, and the tracks are a potential source of offsetting some costs.”

“I’m in favor of taking these tracks out,” he continued.

Asked whether he would support the sale if the agreement stipulated that the rail infrastructure must be kept in place, he answered, “Oh sure. This is a corridor that’s been important to citizens of Kirkland for 20 years now. At first there was a group, people came out of the woodwork and said, ‘We don’t like people walking by our houses [along the right-of-way]. We like the railroad.’ That’s changed in the last 10 years.” After the corridor was severed at I-405 and the Spirit of Washington ceased using the tracks, “all of a sudden people stopped and said, ‘Wait, this could be an amenity.’ ”

He sees the politics in the context of social evolution: “the way the population in Kirkland live their lives — people using bicycles, people wanting to be more active.”

The Port’s Skaggs termed a no-rail-removal stipulation “unnecessary to protect the status of the corridor.”

The unassuming railbed, which hosted the iron horses for 120 years, has become the object of many affections. Kirkland will need to borrow money simply to buy the property and invest a lot more to develop and maintain a trail, but is prepared to proceed. The cries of dissent over rail removal, however, have not convinced the folks with the pens, at least so far.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to change the description of a lawsuit.

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