Activists want Snohomish-Bellevue rail line to stay

SNOHOMISH — A group of rail activists, public officials and business owners are pushing to prevent a section of the rail line that runs from Snohomish to Bellevue from being torn out.

The city of Kirkland is planning to take out a 5¾-mile section of the rail line to install a recreational trail.

Kirkland officials say they plan to eventually rebuild the tracks, but rail advocates are skeptical and say the possibilities should be studied first.

“We just want them to wait,” said Snohomish Mayor Karen Guzak, a member of the rail group.

Railroad cars, rather than trucks, could be used to haul away debris from large construction projects planned on the Eastside in the near future, including a light rail tunnel in downtown Bellevue, advocates say.

A new rail company is running freight on the line, and it ultimately could be used for commuter rail or weekend wine tours, according to proponents.

The group calls itself the Eastside TRailway Alliance, with the capital “TR” signifying a dual purpose.

“We can have both rails and trails,” Guzak said.

The Port of Seattle paid $81 million in 2009 for the rail line to preserve it for public use. The purchase was part of an agreement between King County, Sound Transit, the city of Redmond, Puget Sound Energy and Cascade Water Alliance.

Kirkland bought part of the line for $5 million. So far, Kirkland officials are sticking with their plan to build a trail. “It allows people to start using the corridor but doesn’t lock us into any particular alignment (for future rail) by doing that,” said David Godfrey, transportation engineering manager for Kirkland.

Rail removal could begin as soon as April, Godfrey said. Construction on the trail could begin later this year and parts of it could be open next year.

After the port bought the rail line, a company, GNP Railway, formed and leased the 11-miles of track between Snohomish and Woodinville with plans to run a tourist train.

The idea never panned out and the company went bankrupt.

One of the GNP partners, Doug Engle, formed a new company called Eastside Community Rail that he said already runs freight from Snohomish to Woodinville via Everett.

The company hopes to run a weekend excursion train at least to the wineries of Woodinville, and to Kirkland, said Kathy Cox, one of the partners.

The rail advocacy group, about 40 people, wrote a letter to the city of Bellevue touting the benefits of using the rail line to haul away construction debris — including cost savings and reduced pollution from fewer truck trips — in hopes that Bellevue can influence Kirkland to hold off on its plan to remove the tracks.

They’re hoping a six-month study can be done to show the benefit of waiting, said Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center, a Seattle-based transportation study and rail advocacy group. Agnew is a member of the rail alliance.

Engle has told the rail advocacy group his trains could haul away construction debris, cutting costs and pollution for Bellevue. Rail advocates say some of the pavement remnants could be ground up and used to start building trails along the tracks.

They’ve also floated the idea of a commuter rail line between Everett and Snohomish, though no studies have been made, Guzak said. The BNSF Railway owns the freight tracks between the two cities, also used by Amtrak.

The rails between Snohomish and Bellevue are in good enough shape to carry freight trains but would have to be upgraded to carry passengers, advocates say. This would cost about $6 million for the stretch between Snohomish and Woodinville, Cox said.

“The public needs to protect its assets and make them usable,” she said.

Agnew said the group is pushing the port to seek grant money to upgrade the tracks. Developers along the rail line could potentially pitch into a pool for tracks and trails, he said.

Godfrey said it won’t cost any more to wait and build new tracks than it will to upgrade the current ones. It would be more expensive, he said, to build a trail alongside the current tracks than to use the railbed.

The $18 billion tax package for Sound Transit voters approved in 2008 included $50 million for improvements to the Eastside rail corridor. The money, though, was redirected to projects on the Eastside because of two factors, spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said.

First, sales tax revenue fell off when the economy tanked right about the time of the 2008 ballot measure. Also, for funds to be available, a deadline of Dec. 11, 2011, was set for any interested parties to put together an operation agreement, and that didn’t happen, Reason said.

The tracks run all the way to Renton, near the Boeing plant. The Spirit of Washington Dinner Train ran on the line between Renton and Woodinville from 1992 to 2007. The train ceased operations when the state Department of Transportation took out a section of track south of downtown Bellevue to expand I-405. That track has not been replaced.

In the dream scenario, a Boeing employee who lives in Snohomish and works in Renton could take the train to work, Agnew said.

Now, the section of track between Renton and Woodinville is unused. “It’s just sitting there,” Agnew said.

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