Rail or trail? Eastsiders gather in Woodinville to sip wine and talk trains
by C.B. Hall
More than 40 people, including many elected officials, convened Thursday evening at a Woodinville winery for the latest move in the chess game over the fate of the rail line through eastern King and Snohomish counties. Chaired by Snohomish Mayor Karen Guzak and Woodinville councilmember Les Rubstello, the meeting christened the Eastside TRailway Alliance, which is questioning Kirkland's plans to turn a key corridor segment into a trail.
TRailway organizers circulated a statement: “We support the retention of the Eastside Rail Corridor track and thus support a moratorium on all removal of track in the entire Eastside Rail Corridor, specifically Kirkland’s 5.75 mile portion.“ Several attendees signed the statement; elected officials took home copies to share with their constituents.
Central to TRailway’s plan is rehabilitation of an initial 11 miles of track between Snohomish and Woodinville. The cost of that rehab could reach $6 million. State funding will be needed. Freight access to the segment belongs to the Eastside Community Rail company. ECR managing director Doug Engle, who attended the meeting, has his sights on excursion traffic to the Woodinville wineries, and on freight service extending as far south as Bellevue. Engle’s allies include Guzak, who got a rise from the Woodinville winery reps in attendance when she said TRailway advocates want a rehabbed track so smooth that passengers would not spill their glasses of Chateau Ste. Michelle. (Chateau Ste. Michelle hosted the event.)
The Trailway Alliance is pleading its case to a regional advisory council established by the King County Council in December “to initiate a regional planning process” on what's next for the corridor. The council's report is due July 31. Kirkland is planning to seek bids for the railway’s removal in February, according to Dave Godfrey, Kirkland’s transportation engineering manager, who attended the meeting. Track removal could begin as early as April.
Activists argue that it makes no sense to tear up the tracks for a trail only to build new rail infrastructure later, as Kirkland city manager Kurt Triplett has predicted. The Alliance would keep Kirkland's rails so that “millions of cubic yards of spoils” from Bellevue construction projects can be transported by rail, rather than via truck along the already clogged I-405. In its statement, the Alliance notes that construction spoils could be used in “construction of a maintenance access alongside the tracks that can also serve as a pedestrian/bike trail.”
The spoils proposal seemed to sit well with Bruce Nurse, vice president of Bellevue-based Kemper Development, who was among the meeting attendees. “There's quite a few benefits to it, if the costs are in order,” he said. ”But we don't view this thing as solely an opportunity for our company. There could be a number of developers involved.”
Jane Hague, King County Council vice-chair, told the gathering that the corridor was “a blank canvas.” But in an interview after the meeting, she said she did not believe that Kirkland should hold off on its rail removal plans pending the outcome of the advisory council’s work. “It's their choice to do what they want to do with it,” she said of Kirkland. She expressed hope, though, for more clarity on “what their operating plan is.”
By contrast, Mayor Karen Guzak's view was unambiguous. “If Kirkland takes out the tracks, that really messes with a lot of plans,” said Guzak (at left). “I really wish they’d wait.” She said the Alliance would “make a strong case to the city of Kirkland” in hopes of getting the city to change course.
And if Kirkland could not be swayed? Guzak would consider more discussions, meetings between Engle and government officials, even an appeal to the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates freight railroads. But, said Guzak, Snohomish would not itself file such an action.
Engle declined to comment on Guzak's report. The meeting did not change Kurt Triplett’s mind. On the contrary, said Triplett, “Kirkland is really excited about this trail. We actually hope that some information we gave will help people think differently about Kirkland.” The conversation continues in three weeks when the TRailway Alliance reconvenes in Woodinville to solidify its Eastside rail manifesto.