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Friday, December 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sims to let Port buy rail line

Seattle Times staff reporter

Three days after King County Executive Ron Sims proposed that the county buy part of the Eastside rail corridor and tear up the track, he has put the idea on hold and agreed to let the Port of Seattle buy the entire 42-mile rail line.

The county would retain the option to buy part of the track from the Port next year.

The Port and BNSF Railway plan to sign a final agreement by year's end for the Port to buy the 42-mile, Renton-to-Snohomish rail corridor for $103 million to $105 million.

Sims' chief of staff, Kurt Triplett, said the county and Port have agreed a public process should start early next year to take a fresh look at future uses of the rail corridor.

Triplett said he didn't view the negotiations as a setback for Sims' effort to build a trail from Renton to Snohomish County. "I don't think the trail's off the table at all," he said. "I think it's a matter of time before we figure out how to make that happen."

Negotiations have been complicated by differing views about whether the existing freight rail — which BNSF is abandoning south of Woodinville — should be retained for possible commuter-rail service.

Sims contends the track is worthless and should be removed to lower the cost of building what he has called "the granddaddy of all trails." A high-capacity transit line could be built beside the trail sometime in the future, he says.

After top Port officials said they weren't sure the track should be removed, Sims proposed that the county buy two stretches of the corridor, pull up the rails and put in a temporary biking and hiking trail.

The Port's chief executive, Tay Yoshitani, agreed Thursday to give the county an option to buy those 13 miles of track from the Port next year.

Several Metropolitan King County Council members had resisted Sims' proposal, citing concerns about cost, lack of time to study the deal and the possibility it would preclude passenger rail service in the near future.

With the council's final meeting of the year coming Monday, Councilmember Larry Phillips said Sims' idea to substitute the county for the Port as purchaser of some land came at "the 11th hour, 59th minute."

"Would you buy any real estate — a house, a commercial building or an apartment — where you hadn't seen the purchase and sale agreement and you hadn't seen a financial plan for how you would pay for it over time?" Phillips asked.

Councilmember Bob Ferguson also objected to approving a multimillion-dollar deal "in the handful of days we had. ... Intuitively, any time anyone is thinking about tearing out existing rail tracks, my reaction is, 'Hold on a second.' "

Ferguson said the council and executive Thursday were close to agreement on "broad principles." Ferguson, Phillips and Sims are all Seattle Democrats.

Triplett said Sims and Yoshitani agreed Thursday:

• The Port will sign an agreement by Dec. 31 to buy the entire rail corridor from BNSF.

• King County will have an option through July 1, 2008, to pay $42.5 million for parts of the corridor south of the Wilburton Trestle in Bellevue and a spur between Woodinville and Redmond.

• If the Port later decides to sell the rest of the corridor, right of refusal would go to any public agency that would use it for transportation or recreation.

Sims has proposed that track on parts of the corridor that the county may buy be torn up by BNSF. The Port and the railroad have not agreed.

Public officials have been lobbied by bicycling interests and save-the-rail groups since King County began negotiating to buy the corridor in 2005.

As the debate has intensified, Port Commission President John Creighton said Thursday, "I've gotten a letter from the Woodinville mayor saying don't tear up the tracks, I've got a letter from the mayor of Bellevue saying don't tear up the tracks, and I just got out of a meeting with the mayor of Burien who said you would be crazy to tear up the tracks."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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