February 2, 2008
Sound Transit's move on Thursday to consider a commuter rail line along the BNSF corridor from Snohomish to Renton was a big boost to rail advocates, who had pushed the concept with little success for most of last year.
Sound Transit officials will research the cost and viability of diesel trains on the BNSF line, along with several other projects — including an Eastside light-rail extension and more bus rapid transit — to possibly be included in the agency's next ballot measure — either this fall or in 2010.
Advocates of a BNSF commuter rail line got little support until last fall, when voters rejected Proposition 1, the roads and transit measure. Since then, several political leaders, including Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon and Kirkland Mayor James Lauinger, have expressed support or interest in the BNSF corridor.
But attention from the regional transit agency helps legitimize and strengthen the effort.
"We stoked a little fire here and found an audience," said Bruce Agnew, director of the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center think tank, which has lobbied for a rail line.
"... It means the government is paying attention, and we're not going against the grain."
Sound Transit officials are still far from deciding what projects will be included in its next ballot measure. But a commuter line on the BNSF corridor is being seriously considered for the first time.
Voters thought Proposition 1 was too large and expensive, so the transit board will probably offer a wider variety of options, including more buses and commuter trains, board members said. Using an existing rail corridor, with fuel-efficient diesel trains, could be cheaper and less complicated than, say, building a new electric-powered light-rail line.
Proposition 1's failure "changed the transportation dynamic on the Eastside," said Larry Phillips, a member of the Sound Transit board and a Metropolitan King County Council member.
The transit board was also lobbied by rail advocates and took notice of their meetings and presentations last month, which attracted a couple of hundred people. The board took the concept of lighter, self-propelled trains — called "diesel multiple units" — directly from rail advocates, who have pushed the idea for several months.
"They've been talking to us loud and clear," said Mary-Alyce Burleigh, a member of the Sound Transit board and Kirkland City Council.
Still, the effort to get a line running has several obstacles. If Sound Transit doesn't include the line in its plans, or if its next ballot measure fails, rail advocates may have to focus primarily on private investors to get the project completed.
No one knows how many people would ride a commuter line along the BNSF corridor. The Cascadia Center is raising money to complete its own study, and Sound Transit could include funding for a study on its next ballot measure if it isn't ready to pay for the project.
Advocates say the line would cost $100 million to $250 million, but some transit officials are skeptical. One major cost would be replacing Bellevue's Wilburton Tunnel rail bridge, which is set to be removed for a widening of Interstate 405.
Rail advocates "make it seem that [the line] is a relatively easy and inexpensive thing to do," Burleigh said. "I'm not convinced of that."
Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or firstname.lastname@example.org