October 31, 2007
There's no finer experience than taking your family on a crisp, sunny, fall adventure along the Centennial Trail. Stretching from Snohomish to Arlington and framed by the resplendent Cascades and quiet Machias, the red and yellow trees and clean air remind us why we endure the gray skies and light rain of Puget Sound's winter.
Now we have an opportunity to continue that trail into the heart of suburban King County and simultaneously provide an Eastside rail-transit line that scores of Snohomish County commuters could utilize for years to come, helping limit highway congestion as growth continues.
But if Snohomish County leaders don't act quickly, King County and the Port of Seattle may consummate a pending deal with Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, resulting in King County control of a crucial rail-and-trail corridor, and the possible ripping out of the corridor's 41-mile rail line from Woodinville to Renton. This would leave Snohomish County commuters with a dead end.
Instead, let's keep the tracks and initiate a demonstration project using a new self-propelled rail car called a "diesel multiple unit" (DMU). It's far cheaper to purchase and operate than typical commuter rail (like the Sounder train that connects Everett and Seattle). The DMU also burns biofuels, carries bikes and can be maintained by community-college diesel mechanics.
In the United States, DMUs are made by Colorado Rail Car and Siemens. They've been generating revenue for six years in the West Palm Beach area, and are planned for suburban Portland, Oceanside-Escondido in California, Alaska and Amtrak's Vermonter service.
A single double-deck car can carry 188 passengers and costs around $4 million. Its lower weight requires less investment in track and the bi-level feature allows shorter platforms. The DMU can operate on separate tracks with freight trains or on tracks embedded in concrete like a streetcar, allowing them to divert from the corridor to downtown areas.
The Cascadia Center is working with a group of community leaders in the North Sound region to bring a DMU train to the Bellingham-Everett corridor in the next few years, to supplement Seattle-Vancouver, B.C., Amtrak service and connect with Sounder in Everett.
Why not piggyback on these efforts and share equipment and maintenance between the Eastside and North Sound? We could even run a DMU connector service between Snohomish and Everett.
Snohomish City Councilman Larry Countryman, Snohomish airfield owner Kandace Harvey and business leaders support the rail-and-trail idea, as does Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon.
How do we pay for it?
Private developers and cities can enter partnerships to develop train stations, fix the tracks and build mixed-use development with private capital, as with the South Lake Union streetcar in Seattle.
Currently, there is no direct bus service between the fast-growing east Snohomish County communities of Snohomish and Monroe to jobs-rich Bellevue in East King County — only one early morning bus with a connection from the Highway 520 corridor. Surely, Community Transit, Sound Transit and Metro can team up to share the relatively inexpensive operating costs for the train.
Proponents of the trail-only approach had early on argued that the tracks were in poor shape and conversion to high-capacity transit would cost billions. Cascadia has independently hired a team of respected, retired rail executives led by Read Fay to walk the tracks and provide an estimate of what it would cost to have the DMU units travel at a top speed of 40 mph. The likely estimate is in the range of $20 million to $40 million. The rail/trail corridor could serve as an important emergency transportation lifeline for first responders and citizens in case a major earthquake destroys our critical bridge infrastructure.
So don't let your King County neighbors prematurely cut a vital transit link along the congested Interstate 405/Highway 9 corridor. A commuter rail line connecting eastern Snohomish County to Redmond, Kirkland, Bellevue and Renton needs to be on the map of our region's transportation future.
Bruce Agnew is a former Snohomish County Council member and now serves as director of Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center for Regional Development, www.cascadiaproject.org