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That's his plan A, but he's willing to consider a plan B.
“We are leaving the ballast in,” he said, referring to the crushed rock laid in the railbed to support the track structure. “We're not obliterating the corridor. If there's a viable rail proposal . . . within the next couple of years, the existing railbed will still be there for it.” In that case the trail would have to go somewhere else.
That if, however, is a big one. He emphasized that advocates of immediate rail options have had several years to present viable plans, and that “I've never been presented with something that you can take to an engineering firm to verify costs.”
Moreover, Triplett says the establishment of the regional advisory council probably won't affect the track-removal timeline. He says he did not work with the county council on its legislative package, but noted that Kirkland has supported the county acquisitions.
There are arguably two precedents for Triplett’s plan of removing and then reinstating a rail line. In both Texas and Maryland, railroad tracks have been removed for the construction of trails, which were built on the railbed. In Texas, the trail has since been replaced with commuter rail, but in Maryland, the commuter rail implementation is still pending. While the rail restoration in Texas encountered little opposition, Ben Ross, an activist working on behalf of the Maryland light-rail plans, says overcoming opposition to the relaying of the rails there has involved “an enormous struggle” over 15 years.
In all other comparable cases, the tracks, once gone, haven't come back. And that's what worries the keep-the-rails-in constituency about the Eastside. In a statement prepared for a public hearing held by the county council in advance of its decision, Loren Herrigstad, president of the All Aboard Washington rail-advocacy organization, put the argument thus: “It is cheaper for Rail and Trail to be developed together, rather than separately, or replacing rail with trail to eventually bring back rail at a later time.”
Skeptics counter that neither BNSF nor GNP has been able to keep the freight operation rolling, and that any rail transit system – commuter rail or light-rail – would see relatively low patronage, at tremendous public expense.
In their current condition, “the tracks are basically useless,” says Chuck Ayers, executive director of the 14,000-member Cascade Bicycle Club. “They'll never run a Sound Transit train on them.” He expressed support for Kirkland's plans to dismantle the tracks.
“The public should have access to the corridor as soon as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to put a trail on the railbed.”
How much public investment the deteriorated line might ultimately need depends on whom you ask. In 2008, Sound Transit and the Puget Sound Regional Council projected that a commuter line serving the entire route would cost $22-28 million per mile. Rail advocates have cited total costs as low as $5.6 million a mile in other metropolitan areas, and have claimed total infrastructure costs of about $1 million a mile on the Eastside, based on use of a machine that can lay a mile of track in four hours.
Engle's numbers range even lower. According to his prepared statement before last week's hearing, “the single biggest challenge is getting state funding to upgrade the track, which will be a $5-7M effort from Bellevue to Snohomish for bridges, track, ballast, crossings and parking with a life span of 35 years with regular maintenance. . . . The excursion train alone is a $10M annual business, which will generate a payback to the region for this taxpayer investment within 7-10 years, provide jobs and promote general business vitality in the region.”
After Monday's meeting, council vice-chair Hague stated that a pedestrian trail represented “the first opportunity” for the county's new real estate. She termed that option “the most effective for our public dollars.” She seemed less than overjoyed, just the same, at Kirkland's timeline for ripping out its tracks.
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