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Wednesday, August 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Eastside corridor: possible rail/trail combo?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Commuter trains glide nearly side by side with bicyclists along Seattle's Elliott Bay trail. Freight trains lumber past families ambling on the Burke-Gilman trail near the Ballard Locks. For years, the city's downtown waterfront streetcar rolled a stone's throw from throngs of tourists.

Trains and people increasingly are sharing space on pathways around the region and across the country, separated by fences, shrubs and sometimes nothing at all.

The proximity has not posed a significant safety hazard so far, according to a federal study.

Whether such trail sharing could work along a 47-mile rail corridor stretching from Renton to Snohomish is being explored this summer by a regional committee weighing the future of the former BNSF Railway line.

Representatives of cities along the corridor told the committee Friday that they support King County's planned purchase of the line for public use but were still uncertain which specific future plan they would back.

The committee is exploring options that range from ripping out the rails and using the corridor solely as a trail to allowing freight and/or the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train to share the mostly 100-foot-wide path with hikers and bicyclists.

BNSF Railway says the corridor is no longer financially viable and began purchase negotiations with the county last year. It's not yet clear how much the corridor would cost, or what it would look like if and when it's converted to a trail.

Rails-with-trails projects are gaining steam across the country as other regions grapple with the need to expand recreation while preserving key transportation corridors. A federal study released in 2002 found 65 rails-with-trails routes in 30 states. Dozens more are planned or proposed.

No national standards exist to guide design, said Mia Birk, whose firm Alta Planning & Design assembled the 2002 study. However, the federal study found little history of crashes along shared-use trails, aside from a boy trying to hop onto a moving train and a bicyclist who disobeyed safety gates.

Instead, building trails adjacent to railroad tracks reduced trespassing and petty crimes along the routes, Birk said, since pedestrians and bicyclists had a safe, typically flat place to stroll and roll.

"Where there was a trail there was almost no trespassing across the tracks," Birk said.

Seattle's rails-with-trails paths have proved safe as well, said Pete Lagerwey, bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator with the city's transportation department.

"I couldn't agree with [County Executive] Ron Sims more that this is the single most important trail project in the region," Lagerwey said of the Eastside route. "You can never reassemble these linear corridors in an urban setting. Once it's gone it's gone forever."

The Eastside BNSF corridor has some unique challenges. Ripping out the rails would end dwindling freight service along the route but also would eliminate the path of the popular Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, which has carried 1.3 million tourists and locals alike past Lake Washington sunsets to Woodinville for wine tasting since 1992.

Dinner-train president Eric Temple rallied fans earlier this year to help convince Sims that the train should keep chugging if the county buys the corridor. In addition to the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, Boeing, Weyerhaeuser and a Redmond car factory use the railway for freight.

A survey of communities and groups affected by the purchase showed little support for another rail-with-trail option that would increase rail usage and include redundant tracks for emergency use. Those surveyed cited increased traffic, noise and cost, said Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) consultant Deborah Chase.

The route's location also poses some challenges. Nearby Interstate 405 is slated for years of construction as the state widens it. And while mostly 100 feet wide, the route has several narrow rights-of-way, including freeway crossings at interstates 90 and 405, Highway 522 and the historic Wilburton Trestle. Converting the corridor to a trail alone would likely give enough space for hikers but should trains remain in the picture, planners would have to find different routes in these areas.

Should the county opt to buy the corridor in coming years, its transformation to a trail could be years away — as evidenced by the controversial East Lake Sammamish Trail.

King County first identified a stretch of railbed between Redmond and Issaquah as a critical future trail link in 1971. The stretch opened in full to the public this spring, 35 years later.

"Even if it's just a trail, you've got to take the rails out of the ground and make safety improvements," said Jon Scholes, chief of staff to County Council member and committee chair Julia Patterson.

The BNSF Corridor Rail Advisory Committee includes representatives from (PSRC), King and Snohomish counties, cities along the route including Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond, and bicycle and pedestrian groups.

The committee likely will make a recommendation to the County Council come fall, said project manager King Cushman of the Puget Sound Regional Council. The county already is applying for various federal and state grants that would enable it to buy the corridor.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Eastside bureau reporter Lisa Chiu contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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