Innovative transit idea shouldn’t be dismissed

Among government’s responses to the voters’ rejection of Proposition 1 last month is an obvious one: be open to fresh ideas that can quickly improve our region’s transportation mess.

One idea with such potential is to use an existing, 42-mile rail corridor between Snohomish and Renton as a commuter line, with train cars burning bio-diesel traveling the route every 30 minutes at 40 mph. That proposal has been advanced by the Cascadia Center, the transportation arm of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a private think tank.

But King County Executive Ron Sims wants no part of it. Under a planned deal between the county, the Port of Seattle and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, the port would buy the corridor from BNSF for $103 million, protecting it from piecemeal development. It would lease it to King County, which wants to remove the existing tracks within its borders to make room for a major recreational trail.

We love the trail idea, but it would be hasty and short-sighted to proceed with ripping out the existing rails without thoroughly considering ways to use the route for trains and a trail.

Some Port of Seattle officials are calling for more study of the rail/trail idea. But in a letter to the port last week, Sims said such an idea would be unaffordable, and that if the port didn’t agree by this week to rip up the tracks, King County would back out of the deal.

(The port, by the way, plans to keep the existing tracks between Snohomish and Woodinville in place for freight traffic. That leaves open the possibility of the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, which ceased operations recently, using that route — a potential economic boon for downtown Snohomish.)

Part of Sims’ objection to waiting is money. Removing the tracks is the only way the county can afford to build the trail, he says. But why not first see if other funding partners can be found? Sound Transit, which just had a second phase of light rail rejected by voters, could consider stepping in, along with local transit agencies, Snohomish County, the state and federal government, and maybe even private investors.

Cascadia estimates the cost of upgrading the existing tracks for commuter use at about $800,000 per mile, and of getting the line fully operational at about $125 million. If that’s close to reality, it would be a bargain compared with adding new highway lanes or light rail.

Once tracks are removed, it may be politically impossible to bring them back. A new eastside commuter route has too much upside to be dismissed without a much closer look.

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