Imagine a crisp fall morning bike ride along glistening Lake Washington at Gene Coulon Park in Renton. Your family decides to hop on the new double-decked, domed “Colorado Rail Car” like the one you used to explore Denali National Park on your Alaskan cruise. You store your bikes on the train’s rack and head to the coffee car. Traveling north to the Woodinville wineries, you disembark — knowing the trains run every half hour — have lunch, and jump back on to continue to Snohomish.
There, with views framed by the Cascades, you take an extended bike ride up the Centennial Trail to Lake Stevens, and return to Snohomish to shop for antiques. Tired from the daylong trip, you board the train southbound and rest until it pulls into the station near your downtown Kirkland home.
This scenario need not be merely imagined. A wonderful 41-mile Eastside rail corridor runs from Renton to Snohomish on track formerly used for Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight trains. On the heels of a Puget Sound Regional Council study, King County Executive Ron Sims originally proposed public ownership of the rail corridor and a trail-only configuration from Renton to Woodinville.
Subsequently, Sims and King County Council members brokered a “Principles of Dual Use” agreement among transportation and trail advocates. A high capacity transit study by Sound Transit is now in the Roads and Transit package facing voters in November.
The problem with “high capacity transit studies” by government agencies is that they take a long time and usually result in proposals that cost billions instead of millions. Why not consider a low-key demonstration project — initially from Snohomish to Bellevue and later south to Renton after Interstate 405 expansion is completed — using a new self-propelled rail car called a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU)? They are inexpensive, can burn biofuels, carry bikes and be maintained by community college-trained diesel mechanics.
Two popular DMUs are manufactured by Colorado Rail Car and Siemens. They’ve been operational for six years around West Palm Beach, Fla., and are planned for an 18-mile Washington County, Ore., route; a 22-mile Oceanside-Escondido (Calif.) line; and Amtrak’s Vermonter service.
A single double-deck car can carry 188 passengers and costs about $4 million, or approximately $17,000 per seat — much less than a standard commuter rail operation. Their lower weight requires less investment in track; the bi-level feature allows shorter platforms. They cut emissions 72 percent and noise levels 75 percent, compared with standard commuter rail.
A “Rail and Trail” corridor opens more financing doors than a trail-only project, which competes for scarce parks funding. Connected to bus routes, passenger ferry stops and even Microsoft’s new Connector employee bus service, the project would be eligible for a new federal “Small Starts” program grant for projects under $75 million.
Many communities along the corridor would like to transform back yards of car lots, warehouses and overgrown brier patches into a front yard of compact, livable communities. A rail and trail combination with a safety barrier and separate north and south trails along the old BNSF line is ideal for that.
Kirkland Mayor Jim Lauringer recently outlined a vision of mixed-use software companies, housing and parks at a potential station on Central Way, within walking distance of downtown. Another station near Home Depot and Best Buy in Bellevue could be linked to Bellevue’s transit center across I-405 by shuttle bus.
The rail and trail combo can work for commuters from fast-growing east Snohomish County. Currently there is no direct bus transit service connecting the fast-growing east Snohomish County communities of Snohomish and Monroe with Bellevue. The 41-mile rail corridor travels by several major park-and-ride lots with good east-west connections to Bellevue and Seattle. Certainly, Community Transit, Metro and Sound Transit can pool resources with private employers and recreational interests for the relatively low operating and maintenance expenses of the corridor.
Proponents of the trail-only approach had argued early on that the tracks were in poor shape and conversion to rail transit would cost billions. Our colleagues at the state rail advocacy organization, All Aboard Washington, estimate a $30 million price tag for commuter and freight service in their private bid to take over the tracks.
Cascadia Center, which is supportive of King County and the Port of Seattle’s negotiations for public ownership, has independently hired a team of respected retired rail executives, including Read Fay, a former operations executive for BNSF, 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 track is already in place, and the ultimate cost, the experts said, would be in the tens of millions, rather than billions, of dollars. An intact rail-trail corridor could provide valuable mobility options for the I-405 corridor during expansion construction as well as insurance in case an earthquake destroyed highway bridges. Carefully integrated with other transit modes and systemwide congestion pricing on our major highways, an Eastside commuter rail line would contribute greatly to the emergence of the Eastside as an economic powerhouse.