Commuter rail sought for Snohomish-Bellevue route

A test commuter rail project could be rolling on tracks from Snohomish to Bellevue in just two to three years under a proposal by a regional group of rail enthusiasts.

Members of the Seattle-based Cascadia Center at Discovery Institute have led a push to keep King County from ripping up tracks that run from Woodinville to Renton. They say it would be inexpensive to upgrade the tracks enough to allow small, quiet commuter rail trains to run down the route every half hour to an hour.

King County officials have pushed to yank out the tracks and put in a trail. They have said the tracks are too worn out for commuter trains. They want commuter rail service, but only in the future, when there’s more demand and money to foot the bill.

Despite that, momentum has built to keep the tracks in place since Proposition 1 and Sound Transit’s ambitious plan to extend light rail to much of the region failed at the polls in November, said Bruce Agnew, executive director of Cascadia Center.

“This has become the new darling of the public transportation world,” Agnew said. “It’s only natural to say, ‘Well, that didn’t work — can we do something that’s significantly less costly?’”

The goal is to run commuter trains down the tracks and to build a trail along the corridor, Agnew said. To woo supporters of both options for the corridor, he proposes to start by running trains from Snohomish to Bellevue and building a trail from Renton to Bellevue. Later, rail and trail could be extended along the entire route, he said.

In the end, it appears the Port of Seattle will have the final say over what happens to the tracks. It is in the final stages of buying the 42-mile Snohomish-to-Renton rail corridor from Burlington Northern Santa Fe for $103 million. Port of Seattle officials have said they are trying to buy the tracks because the Puget Sound region can’t afford to lose a valuable north-south corridor.

It isn’t clear whether Port of Seattle officials want to keep the tracks or pull them up. They have worked closely with King County as they have worked to buy the corridor.

“We hope to have (a purchase agreement) finalized by the end of the month,” said Charla Skaggs, a spokeswoman for the Port of Seattle. “At that point we’ll have a public process about how the corridor will be used going forward.”

The Cascadia Center estimates it would take $37 million to spruce up the tracks from Snohomish to Renton enough to allow commuter trains to run down the tracks in a pilot project. Currently, trains have to slow down to 25 mph along much of the route. The improvements Agnew is calling for would allow trains to travel at speeds of 40 mph or faster.

The concept is to run one-car trains down the tracks from Snohomish to Bellevue to test whether there are enough riders to support permanent service. If the test goes well, it would likely cost up to $250 million to build new stations, fix bridges and make other improvements needed to turn tracks into a viable commuter train corridor, Agnew said. That figure includes the cost of building a trail along the entire route.

Fewer trains could run in the less-populated Snohomish County sections of the route. The goal would be to link the service to better commuter bus service along I-405.

The proposal has caught the eye of Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, who says he may push to use Sound Transit dollars to figure out what the true cost would be.

“I support preserving that corridor for commuter rail,” said Reardon, who is the new chairman of the Sound Transit finance committee. “Cascadia Center has presented costs that are very, very low. The most important thing right now is to drill down on the numbers.”

State Rep. Liz Loomis, D-Snohomish, on Thursday introduced a bill to have the Puget Sound Regional Council study developing commuter rail service between Snohomish and Renton.

“This could be a start of something great,” Loomis said.

Strong population growth in east Snohomish County has created a large pool of potential rail riders if trains were provided, Agnew said. His organization expects to launch a study soon to identify just how many potential riders exist.

Herald writer Katya Yefimova contributed to this report.

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