County Council approves plan to buy 12-mile rail corridor

EVERETT — Snohomish County has revived plans to buy a 12-mile stretch of the Eastside Rail Corridor between Snohomish and Woodinville.

The Port of Seattle owns the property. Port commissioners agreed Tuesday to the $3.5 million sale. That followed the County Council’s approval Monday. The transaction is expected to close in April.

County Executive Dave Somers released a statement praising both sides for the agreement.

“We will keep this corridor under public ownership and are committed to preserving this rail with trail asset,” Somers said. “This is the first step of many to protect a valuable community property.”

Freight operations would remain on the former BNSF Railway line, under the county’s plans. The county hopes to develop a parallel recreation trail that would connect to the Centennial Trail in Snohomish and to King County’s regional trail system. There’s talk of commuter service and tourist trains sometime in the future.

“It’s simpler to build a trail on the rail bed, but we’re going to go alongside,” county parks director Tom Teigen told port commissioners Tuesday.

The deal has been touch and go.

The county agreed to the transaction in 2013, but put the purchase on hold in April 2015. Concerns over the condition of the property and right-of-way issues caused the county to back off.

The sides reached a compromise, lowering the earlier $5 million asking price. In return, Snohomish County agreed to take the property “as is.”

The port estimates that the line will require up to $10 million in investment over the next decade.

The County Council voted 3-0 for the acquisition Monday. Money is coming from the county’s Conservation Futures program.

Port commissioners also gave their unanimous blessing with a 4-0 vote.

The Snohomish-to-Woodinville segment is part of a larger rail line the port bought in 2009.

The publically funded port paid BNSF Railway $81 million for 42 miles of track and right of way between Snohomish and Renton, with a spur to Redmond. The idea was to keep the corridor in public use and to prevent it from sold off piecemeal to private landowners.

With the Snohomish County sale, the port will longer own any of the line. It will have recouped all but $19 million of what it paid BNSF. Port Commission President John Creighton sees that money as a contribution to the region.

“The Port of Seattle is pleased that we could bring the 42-mile long rail corridor under public ownership and preserve it for generations to come,” Creighton said in a press release. “We are thankful that we were able to partner with local governments up and down the corridor in preserving a valuable resource for the benefit of everyone in the region.”

The line was originally built in the 1880s. By the time BNSF sold, it was only carrying a small amount of freight.

The port sold other sections to King County, Redmond, Renton, Sound Transit and Woodinville. The section Kirkland bought is now being considered for a bus rapid transit route.

The northernmost segment runs from the city of Snohomish to the north end of King County’s Brightwater treatment plant in Maltby.

It varies in width, reaching 100 feet or more in spots. Elsewhere, it’s more of a rail easement than solid real estate.

Any plans on those stretches need to accommodate existing freight operations.

The rail line promises intriguing links between existing attractions.

It runs directly along the east side of the Carousel Ranch property on Highway 9 that Snohomish County acquired last year. Once the recreation trail is complete, it will connect to other trails leading to the Skagit County line and down to Pierce County, Teigen said.

In Snohomish, political leaders for years have been talking about adding tourist trains between the city’s antique district and Woodinville’s wineries.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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