The Eastside rail line (in red) has a host of owners. Click image to enlarge. Credit: King County Council
Those who want to save an Eastside rail corridor are running short of time.
While Kirkland may start tearing out the tracks in its portion of the corridor in a matter of weeks, a group calling itself the Eastside Trailway Alliance is fighting on. More than 30 people – including some supporting Kirkland – attended the alliance's second call-to-arms meeting at a posh Woodinville winery recently. Pinot gris, merlot and an assortment of cheeses provided a mellow counterpoint to the tenor of the hardening debate.
The cities of Woodinville and Snohomish and several other parties have signed onto the ad hoc coalition's manifesto, which calls for “joint rail and trail development” and a moratorium on track removal. Kirkland intends to put in an interim bike-pedestrian trail on its existing 5.75 miles of railbed, and then begin planning a permanent trail and possible reinstatement of rails on the right-of-way.
Kirkland officials met in November and December with Doug Engle, managing director of Eastside Community Rail, which runs a freight operation at the north end of the 42-mile corridor and is looking to expand its traffic through Kirkland to Bellevue, where pending development projects promise plenty of construction debris in need of removal. Those meetings resulted in an impasse, shifting the standoff into a more public sphere.
“We made no bones about it, going into the discussions, that the corridor could be reactivated,” Engle told Crosscut. Reactivation would involve a federal regulatory board, acting on a petition, authorizing a freight operator to take over an inactive line to reach new customers.
The implied threat of bringing in the feds failed to move Kirkland.
The rail advocates' arguments focus on the Bellevue construction spoils, such as dug-up dirt and rock, concrete and wood.The material could include the debris from a light-rail tunnel planned by Sound Transit. Transporting the debris by rail would generate fewer exhaust emissions than trucks hauling out the same debris on I-405.
The idea is not without precedent. In the mid-2000s, contractor RCI/Herzog built the Chief Sealth Trail, the Seattle city website reports, “as a method of recycling excavated soils and concrete from the Link Light Rail project along MLK [Boulevard]. The City welcomed this innovative construction approach as it resulted in a major savings of taxpayer dollars.”
Engle told the Woodinville attendees that his firm could remove spoils for 15 percent less than trucks would cost in the case of the light-rail tunnel. His trains would take the detritus up the line through Kirkland and deposit some of it there to create or improve a trackside trail at much reduced cost to that city, which has projected spending over $100 million on its version of the trail project. An existing access road alongside part of the Kirkland track would provide a starting point for the trail Engle foresees.
In an early February interview, Bruce Nurse, vice president of Bellevue's Kemper Development, termed Engle's idea “something that would interest us.”
Rail activist Will Knedlik told the Woodinville gathering that when he took the idea to the Bellevue City Council in early February, two members spoke up favorably. In an interview, long-time council member Don Davidson termed the idea “intriguing” but said it needed closer vetting.
“It keeps a lot of trucks off the freeway,” said Davidson, a former Bellevue mayor. About Kirkland's plans, he said, “Once you pull up the rails it's going to be hard to put them back down. Kirkland could probably put a trail through there without pulling up the rails.”
Jack Miller, general manager of Woodinville's Bobby Wolford Demolition and Trucking, which Engle has approached as a partner in the spoils-removal idea, picked up where Davidson left off. While he might make more money removing the spoils entirely by truck, Miller said that “there'd definitely be savings in using the rail. And less traffic impacts, too.” He added that the rails could also bring backhauls of aggregate into Bellevue for construction projects, generating efficiencies in both directions.
Before such things can happen, though, Engle, Woodinville, Snohomish and their allies have political work to do. At their behest Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, has been contemplating seeking a $6.2-million earmark in a transportation funding package currently under discussion in Olympia, to bring the tracks Engle is using up to snuff for both freight and passenger traffic.
“I'm still looking at this,” Hobbs told Crosscut, in a lukewarm tone. But he said that if Kirkland rips up the rails, there won't be much use for rail transit along a broken line in any appropriation.
At Woodinville, several participants saw the Port of Seattle as a conduit for the transportation-package appropriation. Spokesman Peter McGraw termed the port “supportive” of the funding initiative, but he was noncommittal on a possible flow-through role for the port in providing money to a private rail operation. “We're trying to work that out right now,” he said.
None of the rail dreams have made a dent, moreover, with Kirkland, whose mayor, Joan McBride, attended the Woodinville meeting. She declined an opportunity to speak, but, interviewed as she left, made Kirkland's position clear: “We're going to have an interim trail.”
In the political wrestling that will likely decide the controversy, the Woodinville-Snohomish tag team appears unlikely to pin Kirkland to the mat. A broader coalition could wield more clout, but remains speculative. Kemper's Nurse did not return calls for this article, while Bellevue city spokeswoman Emily Christensen said the spoils idea was “not something . . . that the city is actively looking at." Sound Transit's Kimberly Reason said it was “too early” for the agency to examine the possibility.
For the rail advocates, though, time is in short supply.
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