When King County Executive Ron Sims proposed acquiring a 47-mile rail corridor from Renton to Snohomish, and converting much of it to a recreational trail, he instantly made himself a target of pro-rail activists. And yesterday’s approval of the plan by a regional advisory committee has done little to lesson the controversy.
The 24-member Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) rail-corridor advisory committee recommended that the corridor be converted into a trail for most of its length. The real decisions will be made by the county, but that didn’t stop about 15 protesters from standing in the rain to support keeping the railroad tracks, or committee members from arguing over the future of the corridor.
King County Executive Ron Sims wants to buy the corridor as part of a complicated land swap and convert the line to a trail within county limits and a trail-rail combo from Woodinville to Snohomish. The advisory committee, meeting in Redmond, approved the same plan, while leaving open the possibility the corridor could revert to train use in 20 to 40 years.
[…]Members of All Aboard Washington, a Seattle pro-rail group, protested that idea. They stood with signs reading “Trains are Green” and “Do the Obvious … Use These Tracks Now!” […] “Why are we the last city in the United States of America to be catching on [to rail transit]?” asked Al Runte, a group member and former Seattle mayoral candidate.
The pro-rail group wants the corridor to be converted to commuter rail now, using the existing tracks, but transit experts who have studied the route insist that it just isn’t economical. The tracks themselves have been neglected over the years and would require expensive upgrades, while current commuter patterns simply won’t support much of the route. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been privately told.
I suppose one can argue over the facts and the analysis — indeed, we should argue over them. If Al Runte can make the argument for commuter rail now, I’m all for it. But the pro-rail folks need to keep the big picture in sight, and be careful their opposition now doesn’t scuttle the hope of a commuter rail line in the future.
The deal is complicated. The corridor is owned and operated by Burlington Northern, which currently runs a few thousand containers
a day a year on the line, a volume it has decided is uneconomical. Under Sims proposal, the Port of Seattle would purchase the corridor from Burlington Northern, and then swap it to King County in exchange for Boeing Field. King County would then pull up the tracks along much of the route and replace it with a trail… thus saving the corridor intact for possible conversion back to rail at some point in the future.
But if the deal falls through, Burlington Northern will sell the corridor to private developers who will subdivide the land into parcels, thus removing the corridor forever.
The important thing to remember is that one way or the other, Burlington Northern is shutting down this freight line, and there is no potential buyer on the market with a promise and a plan to keep it operating. So if pro-rail opponents manage to nix the purchase and swap agreement because they oppose the rail-to-trail proposal, they will destroy any chance of building commuter rail on the corridor in the future.
First and foremost, the Sims proposal saves the Renton to Snohomish corridor for future commuter rail use — indeed, much of the corridor is wide enough to support both rail and trail side by side, and there are engineering options available to accommodate the two uses where the corridor narrows. But one way or the other, Burlington Northern is absolutely going to shut down the line, so if the deal falls through the corridor will end up being parceled off to private developers.
So here’s my suggestion to Al and the entire pro-rail group: continue to make the argument for commuter rail now (that is, if you have a good argument to make,) but make it absolutely clear that you wholeheartedly support the county acquiring the corridor. For if, through your efforts, the deal is scuttled, the region will end up with neither rail nor trail.