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This reporter has found no line comparable to the Eastside route whose tracks have been removed for a trail and subsequently relaid over the trail, although it appears likely that such will soon happen in one case, in Maryland. The unlikelihood of that sequence of events is a key concern for rail advocates.
Kurt Triplett, Kirkland’s city manager, said he foresees the eventual construction of a new rail line and a permanent bicycle-pedestrian trail, neither of them on the current railbed, at a cost of about $100 million. Adding in the $3.6 million for the temporary trail yields a price of about $18 million for each of Kirkland's 5.75 miles.
By contrast, a project under way in California, for a 70-mile transit corridor that will rehabilitate an existing rail line and build a bike-and-pedestrian pathway alongside it, is projected to cost $7.7 million a mile.
Though he has faced criticism for taking out Kirkland's tracks, Triplett sees Kirkland as taking the lead in the unfolding events. "People choose to ignore that we're putting our money where our mouth is. No one else is doing that — not the port, not Sound Transit, not the county.”
But Kirkland is only one of the many stakeholders that complicate the Eastside line’s status. After the 2008 demolition of the Bellevue's Wilburton tunnel destroyed the line as a through route, the Port of Seattle received all of the mileage from northern Renton to Snohomish, plus a spur from Woodinville to Redmond. BNSF retained trackage from northern Renton to the railroad's main line, near the Renton-Tukwila line. At the moment, the Port of Seattle still owns 30 of the 41 miles, while the city of Redmond has purchased 3.9 miles of its spur, Sound Transit owns about a mile in Bellevue, and this April, Kirkland purchased the mileage within its city limits.
Sound Transit also holds an easement for the implementation of high-capacity rail transit on the entirety of the Redmond spur, and all of the mainline that it doesn't actually own from Woodinville down to Renton. For its part, King County holds a multipurpose trail easement on 26 miles of the route.
They too are looking to buy more pieces of the Eastside transit puzzle. On August 27, King County executive Dow Constantine sent the County Council a proposal to purchase the 15.6 miles of track south of Woodinville not currently owned by Kirkland, Redmond or Sound Transit, as well as a new, 3.9-mile trail easement north of Woodinville, for $15.8 million. The staff briefing report makes only an indirect reference, in a footnote, to the possibility of resuming freight or passenger service if the council approves the plan.
That doesn’t rule the possibility out, though. The county's existing easement articulates an intent “that the property be used for regional recreational trail and other transportation purposes, including. . . rail.” In a 2010 court deposition, 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.”
The trail easement north of Woodinville would coexist with Engle's freight rail operation on the same mileage, suggesting that the county sees no practical problems in putting in a trail alongside existing tracks.
However, County Council vice-chair Jane Hague noted that the county’s easement will essentially go out the window if the purchase is consummated, leaving the trail-vs.-rail question open until all those holding a stake in the line's fortunes come up with a new grand plan.
“We've got five different partners in this corridor,” Hague stated, naming the county, Redmond, Kirkland, Sound Transit and Puget Sound Energy, which holds a utility easement. “The County Council’s position continues to be dual use. The necessity of having a regular planning process for how we . . . [institute] light rail and what the cost is going to be is huge.”
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