December 3, 2007
The clock is ticking. The three-way deal to purchase the Eastside rail corridor has to be struck by the end of the year. If it’s not, King County’s exclusive right to negotiate with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) expires. Apparently, BNSF has already stated it wouldn’t extend that right.
A recent iteration of the deal would have the Port of Seattle purchase the 42-mile rail line for $103 million and lease it to King County. The county wants the tracks ripped out from Renton to Woodinville to develop a hiking and biking trail. Commercial freight would continue to use the track from Woodinville to the City of Snohomish. The agreement would also have the county transfer the $12 million Fisher Flour Mill property on Harbor Island to the Port and would give the Port a seat at the table for all King County International Airport (Boeing Field) projects.
But in recent weeks, the transportation policy think tank known as “Cascadia Center,” (http://www.cascadiaproject.org) has stepped up its “save the rails” campaign. Though very much in favor of keeping the corridor in public ownership and very supportive of an Eastside trail, the Center has real concerns about the county’s proposal that 31 miles of tracks be removed.
Ripping out the rails would “prematurely cut a vital transit link along the congested Interstate 405 / Highway 9 corridor,” wrote Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center, in an Oct. 31 article printed in the Snohomish County News section of the Seattle Times.
In a Nov. 21 letter to Port, county, BNSF and Sound Transit officials, Agnew wrote, “Neither U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules nor Rails-to-Trail recommended strategy seem to mandate or support removal of track in this corridor …. If reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and greenhouse emissions are as important as the Port and the County have declared, then keeping the rails in place on the Eastside is vital. A ‘rails and trails’ approach – much more than a trail-only approach for the 31-mile Renton-Woodinville section – can play a far greater role in meeting the region’s transportation needs, as well as VMT and greenhouse gas reduction targets.”
The Center commissioned a rail inspection report and an estimate of costs to provide a potential 40 mph passenger-only rail service along the corridor using self-propelled rail cars called “DMUs,” Diesel Multiple Units.
Thirty-five year railroad veteran and former BNSF Operations Manager Read Fay walked the line between Oct. 1 and Nov. 16 and determined that with approximately $37 million in upgrades, the entire line could support interurban rail and a trail. His report did not include total infrastructure costs estimated at $100 million based on startup costs for a 32-mile line in Austin, Texas.
“I’m not an engineer, but I’ve been in operations long enough to know what a safe line is,” Fay told 50 to 60 interested parties Nov. 26 at an Eastside rail forum held at Columbia Winery in Woodinville.
He described a piece of equipment called the P811 (Ed. - pictured, below left) that can “take up old rails and ties, kick them to the side, and put in new ones” for roughly $800,000 per mile. The track-rebuilding machine can lay about a mile of track a day, but it needs tracks to run on.
An audience member at the forum said he’d been watching King County Television and it had been “implied that there was some requirement to have the tracks removed.”
Port Commission President John Creighton told the audience that wasn’t the case any longer. It was his understanding that when a railroad sells a corridor to a public entity, the railroad is eligible for a substantial tax break. Apparently, BNSF questioned whether leaving the tracks in place from Woodinville to Snohomish might affect its eligibility for a tax credit. Because BNSF has now decided to allow a third party operator to run the Woodinville-Snohomish line, it is less concerned about the tax implications of leaving the southern 31 miles of track in place.
He said in a phone conversation that whether the rails would be removed was not spelled out in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which laid out the elements of three-way agreement and was signed by the participating parties.
“It was never part of the MOU,” said Creighton. “I’ve always thought of it as a point to be negotiated in the course of the transaction. The Port hasn’t taken a vote on the issue. I believe the sentiment is that there is value in this transaction whether or not the county participates.
“I still believe we share a common vision to make it a dual-use corridor. We are still very intent on working on this for the Port, for the county, and the region, quite frankly. I don’t think there is any intent to immediately tear up the rails. … We need a regional understanding that this is and remains a rail corridor. We really need to go forward carefully and deliberatively.”
Three days after the forum in Woodinville, in a letter to Port officials, Executive Sims issued an ultimatum: If track removal is not made part of the final purchase and sale agreement by Dec. 7, “King County will view the existing partnership and all associated agreements as ended.”
Sims wrote, “As the purchaser of the corridor, the Port has the right to leave the rails in place. But if you choose to keep them, you are de facto taking away any value of the transaction for King County government. Therefore, King County would withdraw both the Fisher Flour Mill property and the cooperative agreement between the two airports (SeaTac and Boeing Field) while still appreciating and supporting that the Port is preserving this priceless corridor for the region.”
Kurt Triplett, chief of staff to Executive Sims, said in a phone conversation, “The value of the corridor to King County is the interurban trail.”
He stressed that the county’s wish to have the rails removed was nothing new. It has been part of every presentation the county has made about the corridor for the past year. Moreover, the county could not afford to build the trail, which has a price tag of $40-50 million, if the rails were not removed.
“We understand why there is a desire to study the issue of the rails,” said Triplett, “but that question has been asked and answered for over a year. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) spent nearly a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars on just this issue. They spoke to every city along the corridor and every user or potential user or interested stakeholder. Their conclusion, published in a 300-page report (found at http://www.psrc.org/projects/bnsf/index.htm) was that the Eastside corridor was not ready to be a transit corridor anytime soon.”
Port Commission President Creighton said, “The PSRC came out with their study and the Port respects and values the work that PSRC did. The study also recommends flexibility in the face of changing conditions. I personally feel that the failure of Proposition 1 (the Roads and Transit Initiatives) changes the landscape.”
Cascadia Center, which financially supported and participated in the PSRC study, ended up voting against its recommendations because, as Agnew stated in his Nov. 21 letter to regional officials, “(W)e felt that the rail line had an immediate suitability for interurban rail service using DMUs ….”
Colorado Rail Car and Siemens manufacture these self-propelled rail cars, which operate or will operate in corridors in West Palm Beach, Fla.; San Diego, Calif.; Washington County, Ore.; and Alaska, to name a few. DMUs are lighter than commuter rail, more fuel-efficient, quieter, require shorter platforms and can carry bike racks. They can operate on regular freight rail track or on rails embedded in streets. A double decker car can carry up to 188 passengers.
The Cascadia proposal, “The Eastside TRailway,” is a $10 million pilot project using a DMU unit running from Snohomish to Bellevue.
Will Knedlik of Eastside Rail Now!, a grassroots movement opposed to pulling up 31 miles of railroad track to build a bicycle trail, told the audience at the Eastside rail forum in Woodinville that so far, East King County has contributed $500 million to Sound Transit, “more than what it has received benefit from.” He suggested Sound Transit give the Eastside TRailway demonstration project $10 million over three years.
“Sound Transit should find out by actually providing the service whether or not it works,” said Knedlik.
The Eastside Rail Now! Web site, www.eastsiderailnow.org, states, “Starting such a service would demonstrate how good rail transit can be. It would also show that such projects can be done quickly and cheaply – even here. And it would show that we are truly serious about doing something about global warming and $100-a-barrel oil.”
It also states, “What has not been emphasized is the fact that once a railroad gets dismantled and the right of way paved into a trail, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, both politically and financially, to reinstall the rails for transit use and/or for other railroad purposes.”
Port Commission President Creighton said, “I grew up on the Eastside and I think if you look at it from a Seattle-centric viewpoint, the corridor would be some place to take your bike on the weekend. For someone who lives on the Eastside, however, I think the primary future benefit of the corridor is transportation. Even though we’re called the ‘Port of Seattle,’ we’re a countywide entity and we need to think in a countywide fashion.”
Agnew said it was imperative that citizens contact Port Commissioners, County Council members, City Council members and even state Legislators to let them know that they want the rails to remain in tact.
“As an independent think tank,” said Agnew, “we can simply propose ideas. Forty-two miles of rail and trail is very, very feasible. It will be up to the public to make its wishes known.”