Thursday, June 14, 2007

Rails for Trails

Sims hopes to buy time for rails-for-trails

Coalition wants corridor left intact while negotiations continue


King County Executive Ron Sims hasn't been able to seal the deal on a plan to buy the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Eastside Rail Corridor for a bike trail.

But on Tuesday he teamed up with cyclists, environmentalists and transit advocates in an effort to buy time and keep the 40-mile-long right of way intact while negotiations continue.


Sims and other supporters signed a statement outlining their intent to develop the corridor for a transit line as well as the bike path. Even if the current plan to purchase the rail line comes together, there's not enough money to develop the proposed transit element.

With the formal statement, the coalition promised to work with local, state and federal agencies for money to build a rail line on the corridor, which is being sold by the railroad.

The underlying plan seems simple: Convert an old Eastside freight line to a bike trail and eventually add a commuter rail line to go alongside.

Bicyclists and the other groups see the Burlington Northern Santa Fe train track connecting Renton, Redmond and Snohomish as a rare open lane through the suburbs that is perfect for pedestrians and pedal pushers.

But crafting the plan that would provide the money to pay for the transformation has proved anything but easy.

Since October, Sims has been trying to broker a deal that would transfer ownership of Boeing Field to the Port of Seattle in exchange for nearly $170 million to finance the rail line acquisition.

Under the proposal, the port would pay BNSF $103 million for the little-used rail corridor, which stretches 33 miles from Renton to Snohomish with a seven-mile spur from Woodinville to Redmond. The port also would give the county up to $66 million to develop the corridor as a hiking and biking trail.

In exchange, the county would give the port Boeing Field, officially known as King County International Airport, now used mainly for air freight and private planes. Operations there would not change at least until 2022, when Sea-Tac Airport, which is owned by the port, is expected to reach capacity, Sims said.

The idea has hit several obstacles, including opposition from some King County Council members who had reservations about transferring the airport as well as the timeline for converting the corridor.

King County Councilman Larry Phillips said he still disagrees with Sims' plan to transfer the airport but he lauded that commitment to keeping the corridor open for bikes and trains.

"Finally, we are headed in the right direction," he said.

Phillips said the proposal was originally billed as the "granddaddy of all trails." "Now we are solidifying the fact that it's going to be dual use, and that's a good thing. That's not were we started out -- and that was what was so alarming to so many people. In effect we are starting over."

The Port of Seattle commissioners were concerned the deal might be too costly.

But as the negotiations drag on, trail advocates fear parts of the right of way might be bought out from under them as BNSF moves to liquidate the property.

"It is important for all stakeholders to work to save the corridor," Sims said. "We cannot let slip away this once in a lifetime opportunity to keep this corridor in one piece in public hands."

He said the plan has always been to eventually add rail transit to the bike trail.

"If the money were available, we'd build modern commuter or high capacity transit rail immediately," Sims said.

The statement of principles will be turned into a plan to seek state and federal support for a new rail line on the corridor that is being sold in a three-way project being negotiated by the railroad, the county and the port. The King County Council and the Port of Seattle Commission must approve the deal.

P-I reporter Chris McGann can be reached at 360-943-3990 or

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