King County buys itself a railroad track

The county plans to purchase a big chunk of the Eastside rail line. What next?
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King County Councilmember Jane Hague

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

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.


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