Land purchase could lead to a longer Centennial Trail

SNOHOMISH — One of the largest paved trail systems in the nation could some day pass through the downtown here, via the old railroad trestle on the Snohomish River.

A rail corridor Snohomish County is angling to buy would lay the ground for a huge expansion of the Centennial Trail, giving cyclists, equestrians and runners a clear path to Woodinville and beyond. The trail already goes from the Skagit County line to downtown Snohomish.

“It would allow somebody eventually to ride from Skagit County all the way down into Pierce County,” County Councilman Dave Somers said. “It’s a great acquisition.”

In a related move, the city of Snohomish plans to buy riverfront land for a new boat launch and more trails to the east. City and county leaders believe both transactions could help make reality out of long-unrealized dreams of bringing a tourist train that would link Woodinville wineries with Snohomish’s antique district.

The potential real estate deals owe to grants pending approval through Snohomish County’s Conservation Futures program.

An advisory board, which includes Somers, recommended the land purchases in August. They’re among 19 projects in line for a share of $25 million in grants.

The County Council is expected to vote to finalize the recommendations later this month, at a date to be announced.

One grant would allow the county to buy an 11-mile piece of the East Side Rail Corridor that the Port of Seattle owns in Snohomish County.

A separate grant would allow the city of Snohomish to pay $500,000 for 19 acres of flood-prone farmland along the Snohomish River, immediately east of downtown. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has pledged nearly $400,000 to build a ramp on the property for launching motorized watercraft. The city would keep its existing boat launch at Cady Park for kayaks and canoes.

“Right now the boat launch at Cady Park is very steep, it doesn’t work at low tide and there’s very little parking there,” Snohomish Mayor Karen Guzak said. “We looked at doing another boat launch at Cady Park and it’s still constrained by parking.”

Provided the deal goes through, construction on the ramp isn’t likely to begin for at least a year, Guzak said.

The city also would like to use the new land, now owned by the Stocker family, to expand the Riverfront Trail. It also offers the state a chance to improve salmon habitat in the river.

That’s not all that’s envisioned for the Stocker property. The county sees it as a missing link to extend the Centennial Trail eastward to Monroe. The county already owns most of the right of way for that route. The Snohomish city land also could provide a trailhead at the nexus of the Centennial Trail’s future north-south and east-west legs.

What most excites county parks director Tom Teigen about the county purchase is tapping into a regional trail network. The Centennial Trail already attracts an estimated half million users every year. Once it reaches Woodinville, it can link with King County’s Burke-Gilman and East Sammamish River trails, which see an estimated two million users per year.

“It’ll definitely attract some interest nationally,” Teigen said. “This piece starts making the Vancouver (B.C.) to Vancouver (Wash.) linkage possible.”

The Snohomish-to- Woodinville corridor is among the last pieces of old rail line the Port of Seattle still owns from its 2009 purchase of the East Side Rail Corridor. The Port paid Burlington Northern Santa Fe $81 million for 42 miles of track and right of way. The original sale included the line from Snohomish south to Renton, with a spur to Redmond.

The rail line started in the 1880s, but had dwindled to minimal freight use by the time BNSF sold it.

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.

The Port of Seattle has sold off sections over the past four years to King County, Redmond, Kirkland and Sound Transit.

The Port retains about 15 miles, including the Snohomish County section.

The price under discussion is $5 million, Teigen said. Conservation Futures money would supply $3.5 million, with other county funds making up the rest. The county originally sought to buy an easement on the land, but changed its Conservation Futures request to an outright purchase.

The property runs from the city of Snohomish to the north end of King County’s Brightwater treatment plant in Maltby. It measures about 100 feet wide in most places, though a few spots narrow to about 30 feet.

The parks director and other proponents say there’s plenty of room to keep the tracks and build a parallel recreation pathway.

“Everybody involved is committed to seeing the trail, with rail, move forward,” Teigen said.

The tracks need about $6.5 million in upgrades to accommodate passenger rail.

“We’re working closely with the state legislature to get that money,” Guzak said.

Civic leaders for years have discussed a tourist train that would ferry passengers between the Snohomish’s historic downtown and Woodinville’s wineries.

Guzak said the tourist train remains a long-term goal. She co-chairs a group called the Eastside TRailway Alliance whose name uses double capital letters to emphasize its commitment to both rail service and trails.

Gaps in the rail network will complicate any hopes of starting commuter train service. That includes Kirkland’s efforts to remove 5 ¾ miles of track to build trails.

“It will make it much more difficult, but not impossible,” Somers said.

Keeping the county’s section of rail open to freight trains also is a priority, Somers said.

The county began its Conservation Futures program in 1988 to distribute property taxes that the state allows counties to collect for land preservation.

This round was made possible by a $120 million bond sale the county conducted in April. The bonds also are being used for a new county courthouse, park infrastructure projects and road improvements.

The county plans to pay back the Conservation Futures portion of the bond using future revenues.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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