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King County buys itself a railroad track

The county plans to purchase a big chunk of the Eastside rail line. What next?

King County Councilmember Jane Hague

King County Councilmember Jane Hague King County

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.

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.

“It would be wonderful if they were willing to hold off a bit until the planning process and the stakeholder process are completed, but we'll deal with it either way. I think the planning process is looking more at the long-term capital investments.”

“There's definitely some sort of economic value to be gained by having an excursion train go from Bellevue, but with Kirkland tearing up the tracks, that's not an option,” she added.

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer and has been following Pacific Northwest transportation issues since the 1990s. He can be reached through editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Dec 13, 10:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Any prospects for maintaining the Eastside rail line as functional trackage are doomed by the Republican coup in Olympia, the as-yet-unacknowledged effect of which is to turn Washington into a de facto "red state."

What this means in the realm of public transport is characteristic "red state" contempt for transit users and fanatical opposition to mass transit will, by default, become official state policy.

Just as Douglas Engle says, “the single biggest challenge is getting state funding to upgrade the track."

But any progressive intentions Governor-elect Jay Inslee and other like-minded Democrats may have brought into office are now hopelessly obstructed by the cunningly schemed Democratic treachery that gave the Republicans -- the majority of whom are Teabagger fanatics -- absolute control of the Senate.

The state government is thus paralyzed for the entire 2013-2014 biennium, with lethal consequences not just to the Eastside rail line. The now-insurmountable lack of state funding for mass transit is undoubtedly the final blow to bus service in Tacoma, where the suburbanite war against transit-users is turning the city into the largest municipality in the United States – possibly in the entire industrial world – without an adequate transit system.

Undoubtedly the coup will have other ruinously anti-transit impacts elsewhere throughout the state.

It is also the death knell for any other government service the fanatical Teabaggers despise -- which includes not just state-run social services and implementation of federal health-care reform but trails, bike paths and indeed any mode of transport that does not directly serve the environmentally destructive profiteering of Big Automotive and Big Oil.

Once again, the writers who have characterized Washington state as "Mississippi on Puget Sound" are proven correct -- probably more horribly correct than they themselves imagined. And once again – in true “red state” fashion – lower-income peoples and the environment are the chosen victims.

Posted Fri, Dec 14, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

The capon (a fat, neutered chicken) calling itself Loren Bliss wrote this:

The now-insurmountable lack of state funding for mass transit is undoubtedly the final blow to bus service in Tacoma, where the suburbanite war against transit-users is turning the city into the largest municipality in the United States – possibly in the entire industrial world – without an adequate transit system.

I already explained the problem to you in this comment thread, Loren:

http://crosscut.com/2012/11/07/elections/111368/election-2012-first-look-winners-and-losers/

Re-read it, and catch a clue. The reason Tacoma has lousy transit has NOTHING to do either with inadequate “state funding” or the “suburbanite war” your overheated imagination whipped up. No, Loren, the reason Tacoma has garbage transit is garbage management at the TWO municipalities hauling in regressive taxes from you and your neighbors that are charged by the state with providing you with transit.

The state legislature created TWO completely unaccountable municipalities to provide transit services for you and your neighbors: a RCW 36.57A “PTBA” (Pierce Transit) and a RCW 81.112 regional transit authority (Sound Transit). Each imposes heavy regressive taxes. You and your neighbors are paying car tab fees and a 1.6% sales tax – FAR heavier taxing just for transit targeting the least well off than anyplace else in the country. Why with all that taxing does your community have craptastic transit, Loren? Because the unaccountable political appointees controlling both those municipalities don’t give a rat’s behind about providing efficient, quality transit services to people.

I’d suggest you and your neighbors elect smarter and more frugal legislators to manage those municipalities better, but you sorry SoB’s can’t do that. That’s because the bond lawyers who set both those municipalities up ignored what the US Supreme Court has said on the key issue: Americans have a 14th Amendment right to vote local policy makers both on to and off of the boards of municipalities.

But hey, keep on dreaming up reasons not to place blame where it belongs (the flawed structure of those municipalities and the knobs appointed to their boards) – it's what you're good at.

crossrip

Posted Fri, Dec 14, 7:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Crossrip, for demonstrating the hatefulness that defines the ideological faction to which you belong -- its expression facilitated, as usual, by the craven cowardice of anonymity, whether provided by a screen-name or a pillowcase cut with eye-holes.

Posted Sun, Dec 16, 1:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Oooooh, oppose corrupt transit schemes and you're in the KKK! Gotta love the fake "progressives" and their craziness. Oh well, Loren, tough break in Piece County, huh?

NotFan

Posted Sat, Dec 15, 8:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Crossrip, for demonstrating the hatefulness that defines the ideological faction to which you belong -- its expression facilitated, as usual, by the craven cowardice of anonymity, whether provided by a screen-name or a pillowcase cut with eye-holes.

Nothing is “hateful” about what I posted. I care about the people around here, and want better for you and others around here.

You complain about the lack of adequate transit in Tacoma, yet 1) the legislature created TWO entirely unaccountable municipalities for your county and region to provide transit there, and 2) you and your neighbors are subject to some of the highest regressive general transit taxes in the country.

Why then aren’t the services being delivered in your community?

It’s a structural governance problem that fosters bad management. Both of those municipalities were created by bond lawyers to have completely unaccountable governing boards. Goldman Sachs told Gerry Johnson and his partners it would be easier to sell muni bonds that way. Unfortunately for all of us, they bought that line of garbage. The federal constitution prohibits states from delegating to appointive-board entities the broad powers those two municipalities were handed by our legislature.

What happened then was inevitable – it is human nature. The appointees controlling those boards used those unchecked powers to increase their power at the expense of the public. What you are complaining about is the fallout: lousy transit service. What you are ignoring is the root cause and the truly abusive taxing regime (it is unlike anywhere else – no other bus and train services providers impose regressive taxes at the level they’re imposed here).

Nobody cares what my name is, just as nobody in colonial America cared who the authors of the Federalist Papers were. As for your attempt to characterize me as a KKK member . . . I’ll respond to that. The KKK attacked those who had no power, either social or legal. I am attacking entrenched municipalities with unlimited resources that operate under color of law. I don’t expect you to acknowledge those differences, but everybody reading this understands your analogy is a joke.

crossrip

Posted Sun, Dec 16, 3:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Apparently, Crossrip, you either suffer severe short-term memory-loss or you assume most of us who view these pages are less than literate. First you employ a classic tactic of school-yard bullies and reactionary thugs, opening your specious arguments with a triple insult sufficiently grave to invite verbal assault charges: "The capon (a fat, neutered chicken) calling itself Loren Bliss wrote this." Then you deny your malice: "Nothing is 'hateful' about what I posted."

Given such irrefutable proof of your dishonesty and the malevolence behind it, how could a reasonable person possibly believe anything else you might say?

Never mind it's the most craven sort of cowardice to hurl such insults from behind the protection of anonymity.

As for the Klan, I know it all too well from my years as a civil-rights activist and a journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee c. 1963-1965. The good Christian gentlemen of what colloquially is known as "the Saturday night men's Bible-study class" tried at least three times to end my life. Discouraged by the firearms skill I demonstrated during the first such encounter, they resorted to more stealthy measures, including sabotaging my 1958 Porsche by slashing its brake lines. They also fatally poisoned Brunhilda, the beloved German shepherd whose fierce protectiveness literally rescued me from a Klan hitman and deterred I have no idea how many other such assaults.

Though the issues that bring out the reactionary elements here in the Pacific Northwest tend to be more socioeconomic than racial or ethnic, the underlying hatred is identical. And it's identically rationalized as the sole legitimate expression of "true American" values.

Your attempt to legitimize yourself by claiming kinship with Federalist Papers authors is therefore both predictable and definitive.

Again, I thank you for sharing.

Posted Sun, Dec 16, 1:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey loren, tough luck about Tacoma. And about Olympia. How I just hate to hear you whine! Wait, that was a lie. I just looooove it when you whine. The KKK stuff is priceless. I've been laughing all morning at that one!

NotFan

Posted Thu, Dec 13, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

The trouble with mass transit in Puget Sound is there isn't the masses that use it enough to justify the "mass" part. No amount of smoke and mirrors will change that. Wasting public money on it is just that, waste. Kirkland has the right idea. I like the idea of five miles of new trails. It's healthy and far less polluting then diesel locomotives.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Dec 13, 6:33 p.m. Inappropriate

This part doesn't make sense to me:

"[Kurt Triplett] 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.”

During the I-405 Corridor Program (2000), the option of using this corridor was removed from further study by written request of the Kennydale Neighborhood Association, and the City of Renton.

The PSRC and Sound Transit studies only happened later, at rail advocates insistance.

The Preferred Alternative for the I-405 Corridor is adding 4 more GP lanes, and a somewhat ill-defined BRT system.

There were two being done, one by WSDOT, and one by Sound Transit, with very interesting results, which were NOT compared to rail on the Woodinville Sub. (first paragraph above)

I hope Crosscut goes into more depth on the BRT alternative.

Also, during the process, I asked fellow Citizens Committee representative Kim Browne of the Kennydale Neighborhood Association, after learning that there were going to be numerous property takes in her neighborhood to accommodate the new GP lanes, why is the rail line such a problem, if they already had a transportation corridor in their backyard. One that was going to dramatically affect some of her neighbors. Her reply was "Well, then we'd have TWO backyards!"

Valid point... but the point was made.

Maybe Kirkland just needs to come forward with why the want to do this, because the numbers don't back up their decision.

JimCusick

Posted Fri, Dec 14, 2:20 a.m. Inappropriate

The trouble with "mass transit in Puget Sound" is that, by definition, it would be under water,

(Sorry. The Devil made me do it.)

Posted Fri, Dec 14, 11:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Isn't that the goal?

Djinn

Posted Fri, Dec 14, 7:34 a.m. Inappropriate

"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."

Should this read "remove soils"? I've seen spoils of war, but not construction.

There are certainly many large building projects where the excavation and removing of earth goes on for months and significantly impacts local traffic patterns.

I would like to know more about what major construction projects are referred to and how close the tracks are to truly make an impact.

jeffro

Posted Fri, Dec 14, 10:30 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't understand why King County would need to purchase outright so much of this corridor for a trail.

It already paid the Port for an easement over most of this corridor for a trail (right after the Port bought it from BNSF). That easement the county obtained allowed it to use the federal "railbanking" provisions, and it allows the county to develop a multi-use trail. What additional benefits would this new acquisition provide to the county?

crossrip

Posted Sun, Dec 16, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

It's always good to know that there's no shortage of money to waste. Makes it so much easier to vote against every new levy.

NotFan

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