‘Underutilized’ Rail Line Getting Closer Look: Corridor From Snohomish To Renton May Combine Transit, Trail In Years To Come

Original Article

Several officials say they are united behind rescuing a 40-mile railroad corridor snaking from Renton’s Gene Coulon Beach Park through the heart of the Eastside to Snohomish.

While the route does a pretty good job of hitting major job centers, state and local officials say the rail line misses the biggie: Downtown Bellevue.

“As a high-capacity transit line, it’s way outside where we think it ought to go in central Bellevue,” said Bellevue Deputy Mayor Phil Noble. “As an amenity like a trail, it has its advantages.”

There is no agreement in sight on who might come up with the hundreds of millions for the 100-foot-wide swath of land or how it might be used. Candidates include turning it into a trail, or in future decades heavy commuter rail, light rail or monorail.

“Most people come together and visualize a trail or shared rail and trail,” said King Cushman, regional strategy adviser for the Puget Sound Regional Council. “It seems quite premature to jump into it as a transit market for high capacity transit just yet.”

Details about the railroad, including a long list of challenges, were given to officials this week. Further studies might cost $800,000 — mostly in federal and state grant money– to sort out questions about ownership and environmental impacts.

Woodinville and the Discovery Institute have already pledged $10,000 each to study the issue.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad officials approached the state last fall to see if there was public interest in buying the line, deemed “underutilized.” Railway officials reportedly said they need an answer in June because private developers had begun expressing interest in the land.

The land alone could run $300 million, according to some estimates. The tracks are old, in need of $57 million in upgrades by some estimates. Some of the railroad land was granted by Congress, some is owned outright, and other land would revert to adjacent property owners, Cushman said.

The company has recently sold 22 strips of surplus land along the line, but says it has since stopped. The debate over this 40-mile line has derailed Redmond’s negotiations to buy 1.8 miles of a separate railroad land in its downtown, said Rob Odle, Redmond policy planning manager.

The longer line has operated since the 1800s, and what’s in the ground is still a question, officials said. It crosses 138 wetlands, 169 streams, the historic Wilburton Trestle, 10 parks, 30 business properties and runs up against 360 homes.

Kirkland Councilman Tom Dillon, supporting preserving the land while not judging its future use, said answering ownership questions and planning environmental clean up should be the rail company’s burden, not taxpayers’.

“The railroad will work with you on those studies,” said Pati Otley, government affairs for the railroad company. “If you expect ownership or the environment issues solved, I don’t think that will probably work. The environmental issues is a potential lifetime of work.”

The line carries the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train once on weekdays, twice a day on the weekend. The dinner train has three more years on its lease for the rails. Freight trips haul mostly forestry and building products from Maltby to and from Bellevue and Woodinville, and tall or wide rail cars bypassing Seattle rails.

Preserving the land for future transit technology or a trail is acceptable, “however we strongly oppose any bid for mass transit,” said Renton Councilman Don Persson. During debates over widening Interstate 405, officials estimated 7,500 to 15,000 riders a day would use rail transit on the Burlington Northern rail line.

A formal answer to the railroad company will be voted in June, Cushman said.

Jeff Switzer can be reached at or 425-453-4234.