The King County Council voted unanimously Monday to purchase 15.6 miles of the Eastside rail line from the Port of Seattle, and to buy an easement from the port for the construction of a trail on an additional 3.6 miles of the 41-mile corridor. Together the acquisitions will cost $15.8 million, though the county will be credited $1.9 million, the price it paid the port in 2009 for a multipurpose easement on the line.
A motion also passed Monday designates the entire Eastside line a “corridor of regional significance” and sets up an advisory council “to initiate a regional planning process.” The council will consist of representatives of the county, Redmond, Puget Sound Energy (which owns a utility easement on the corridor), Sound Transit, and the city of Kirkland, which in April purchased the 5.5 miles of the line within its boundaries.
The panel will complete its review of stakeholder concerns by the end of March, and county executive Dow Constantine will then have until July 31 to finalize the advisory panel's report, according to County Council vice-chair Jane Hague.
What will happen with the Eastside rail line?
The process of deciding what to do with the line has been unfolding since 2003, when rail company BNSF first announced plans to divest itself of the corridor. Like other big railroads in recent decades, the freight-hauling giant was seeking to unload a short, low-traffic segment of its system so as to concentrate on longer-haul main lines. Since then, the Eastside line has provided its fair share of local political drama, the highlight perhaps coming in 2006, when then-county executive Ron Sims declared his intention to turn the 121-year-old route into “the granddaddy of all trails.”
The mandate for the advisory council attests that the possibilities for the line go far beyond the simplicity of Sims's five words. Even keeping track of who owns what, or what easement, is hardly simple. After the county purchases its mileage, the other bits and pieces of the line and its easements will be owned by the port, Redmond, Kirkland, and Sound Transit.
The jigsaw puzzle also includes a small freight operation on the Snohomish-Woodinville segment. The company running that operation, GNP Railway, went bankrupt in February 2011. In October a bankruptcy court ruling approved purchase of the company by Douglas Engle, who was GNP's chief financial officer. Engle anticipates closing on his acquisition by December 19th, but even If the deal collapses he will still have to pay $100,000 to keep the operation going until another buyer can be found.
Depending on the outcome of negotiations, Engle may also assume GNP's agreement with the port, as track owner, to resume, in truncated form, operation of the Spirit of Washington Dinner train, which traveled almost the full length of the corridor until the demolition of a South Bellevue tunnel cut the line in two.
Engle also has his eye on extending the north-end freight service south to Bellevue, where his trains could remove spoils from a series of major construction projects, alleviating shipping traffic on the already-congested I-405.
There’s a major roadblock though. To accomplish that, Engle will have to get his trains through Kirkland, which is planning tentatively to start ripping up the tracks on the 5.5 miles it owns as early as February, and then to build what city manager Kurt Triplett calls an “interim trail” on the railbed.
Triplett – like the county council and the other parties to the debate – feels that the corridor should be the focus of a concerted regional planning effort. In Kirkland, he foresees 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. Figuring in the $3.6 million that the interim trail will cost, the entire project would consume about $18 million a mile.
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