King County and Seattle port buying rail corridor in Snohomish County

EVERETT — Snohomish County officials are happy a rail corridor that stretches from the city of Snohomish to Renton may be purchased and preserved. Some are less thrilled that its future may wind up controlled by politicians in King County.

The Port of Seattle, in partnership with King County, last week reached an agreement to buy the 42-mile track from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway for $103 million. The agreement leaves the door open for the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train to run from Snohomish to Woodinville. The dinner train ceased operations last week.

Freight trains will continue to use the tracks from Snohomish to Woodinville, but there are no plans or money for a trail along those tracks, said Charla Skaggs, spokeswoman for the Port of Seattle.

Still, the port is willing to talk about adding a trail bordering the tracks if someone in Snohomish County is willing to pitch — and pay for — the idea, she said.

Regardless of the use — freight, light rail or trail — Snohomish County should have a say over how the corridor is used, said Dave Somers, the Snohomish County councilman whose district includes the train tracks.

“We’re going to have to come up with an agreement with them on how the corridor is managed,” Somers said. He said King County and the Port of Seattle “have been so focused on how to work the deal and turning it into a trail on the Eastside” of King County that they haven’t “had much time to think about Snohomish County.”

Snohomish County Councilman Gary Nelson said the port and King County have overreached. He said they should not be buying major tracts of land in Snohomish County. He’s still not happy about King County deciding to build the Brightwater Sewage Treatment Center in Maltby.

“I don’t think the operation of the Seattle port has anything to do with Snohomish County,” Nelson said. “I don’t believe they should own a portion of Snohomish County at all. I think they’ve got to look at this a little further before they just can jump in and buy property willy-nilly.”

There’s no effort in King County to expand north, said Kurt Triplett, chief of staff for King County Executive Ron Sims.

The Port of Seattle wants to buy in Snohomish County because federal rail-banking law requires that the entire corridor be purchased and owned by one government, he said.

“We have never shut Snoho­mish County out,” Triplett said. “We want them to be a player and we would welcome that. It’s just that Snohomish has not wanted to step up and be a player and they’ve not wanted to put any money behind it. It would be nice to see some appreciation that we have preserved this corridor and we have now given Snohomish County options.”

Somers said he appreciates that someone has taken steps to secure the corridor, especially since the other option was to see it broken up and sold piecemeal.

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon has been tracking the Port of Seattle and King County deal and also wants to see the corridor preserved, said Brian Parry, executive office administrator.

The goal has to be to keep running freight on those tracks while also preserving the potential for a trail and converting it into a transit corridor in the future, he said.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion between Snoho­mish County and the port” of Seattle, Parry said. “We’re obviously going to keep a close eye on the corridor to make sure (those three) options are maintained.”

Parry said Snohomish County has no money for a trail along the rail corridor now, but the county’s long-range plan offers that possibility.

The Spirit of Washington Dinner Train could come back if a deal for access could be reached with the Port of Seattle, said owner Eric Temple.

The train’s temporary use of a route in Tacoma ceased last week after ticket sales were slow and the cost of running the train on the route soared, Temple said. The train had to cease operations this summer between Renton and Woodinville because a bridge on the route was in the way of widening I-405 in Bellevue.

“We were always very excited about Woodinville to Snoho­mish,” he said, adding that he was contacting the Port of Seattle on Monday morning.

King County plans to spend up to $50 million converting the tracks in King County to a trail, Triplett said. He said the county is working out a long-term lease with the Port of Seattle for access to the route.

The Port of Seattle has been trying to buy the tracks because it wants to see it become a transit corridor, Skaggs said.

“It would be impossible to reassemble a corridor for that length,” she said. “We think it’s important to preserve it for the region. We’re dependent on a healthy transportation system.”

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or lvelush@heraldnet.com.

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