Who’s on board with proposal for new commuter train?

A private company’s bid to run commuter trains from Snohomish County to Bellevue is gaining traction with the Snohomish County Council.

GNP Railway is proposing six commuter trips from Snohomish to Bellevue weekday mornings and six return trips in the afternoon. Supporters say the figure could someday double to 12 each way.

Growing traffic woes and a dearth of cash for road projects makes the idea is so appealing that county attorneys are drafting cooperation and confidentiality agreements between the county and train operator, County Council chairman Dave Somers said.

“I’m excited about it, but cautiously excited,” Somers said. “I think it’s realistic.”

The project is being proposed by GNP Railway’s chairman Tom Payne, founder of RaiLink Ltd., Canada’s third largest railway. He took the company public and it “got gobbled up by RailAmerica, and I got a pay day,” he said.

Payne was recruited to draft plans for commuter train service by a railroad advocacy group called All Aboard Washington and “computer companies in Bellevue who can’t get their people to work,” he said.

There’s an opportunity to use the route because the Port of Seattle is close to buying the tracks for $103 million from Texas-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

The tracks run 42 miles from Snohomish to Renton.

The Port of Seattle proposes to keep freight trains running from Woodinville to Snohomish, and suspend operations south of Woodinville. King County wants to build a hiking and biking trail along the route through cities on the east side of Lake Washington.

The trains should keep running and the port should choose an operator for the system, Payne said.

Payne would like his company to be named the operator to coordinate commuter trains, tourism trains such as the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train and other trains.

If agreements are approved between the railway company and Snohomish County, the company could have access to county land for parking and maintaining trains in Snohomish — and be in a better position to someday run trains to Bellevue and back.

“We’ve done the economics, located the equipment, qualified all our people,” Payne said. “Now we need to find a parking lot for trains, and that’s got to be in Snohomish.”

Payne has spent months studying capital needs, operational costs and schedules. It would cost an estimated $80 million for stations, trains, and to rehabilitate the tracks.

The group has completed ridership studies that show there would be sufficient demand, Payne said.

For now, Payne said confidentiality agreements bar from saying who will help bankroll the construction costs for the commuter route.

That’s a point that worries officials.

“I’m very skeptical,” County Councilman Brian Sullivan said. He said Payne’s financial backing will have to be disclosed if the county is to move forward.

Somers shares Sullivan’s doubts about the private financing but remains hopeful.

“I think he’s got a great plan, I think he has experience,” Somers said. “I think it’s pushing the envelope for the county and I’m a little concerned we won’t be able to respond quickly. I think he can make something happen very quickly whereas the normal path of government, the Sound Transit approach, can be decades away.”

Payne cautions that a lot of bureaucratic paperwork, negotiations and federal permitting remains before trains could start running.

“This is not instant pudding,” Payne said.

The company proposes building a headquarters and station in Snohomish. It would also build four other stations and a paved trail for bicyclists. The goal is to start running trains next year.

Whether that happens ultimately is up to the Port of Seattle, which expects to sign a purchase deal for the rails in coming weeks, port spokeswoman Charla Skaggs said.

The deal might close in September, after which the port plans to seek public input on how the route should be used.

Snohomish County wants to have a say, Somers said.

“I’m very concerned we don’t lose our options as this transaction takes place with the port,” Somers said.

The idea has merit, and councilmen said they didn’t want to get aced out of the opportunity to have commuter trains on the route, County Councilman Mike Cooper said.

Once the Port of Seattle takes over the route, Snohomish County will have less control over the outcomes in the corridor, Cooper said.

“Anytime we can do commuter rail, it’s a step in the right direction to reduce vehicle miles in the region,” Cooper said. “We want to make sure the county doesn’t miss our change to push harder for that corridor to be used.”

Ray Sutton of Cathcart said that the rail tracks run “in my back yard.” He is used to cargo trains passing slowly through his neighborhood, but Sutton said he is concerned that commuter trains would pass faster and more frequently, blowing horns.

“No. 1 is noise,” said Sutton, 48. “No. 2, because of the noise, property value is going to be hit hard.”

The commuter trains may help the city of Snohomish attract businesses, but they could hurt his lifestyle, Sutton said.

“It’s not going to be easy for people who live along the tracks because it’s noisy and dangerous,” he said.

Commuter trains would help Snohomish residents who now commute on congested Highway 9, Snohomish city manager Larry Bauman said Tuesday.

“The city is very interested,” Bauman said. “We are looking for additional information.”

The potential location for a train station in Snohomish has yet to be decided, Bauman said. City officials also need to know how the station would affect traffic and how to provide crossings.

On April 15, the City Council has scheduled a workshop with the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a regional think tank, to discuss the project, Bauman said.

“Certainly there are a lot of unanswered questions from our standpoint,” he said.

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or jswitzer@heraldnet.com.

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