Lawsuit threatens tourist trains

A lawsuit against the Port of Seattle could put a wrinkle in plans for tourist trains and eventual passenger rail service to Snohomish along the Eastside Rail Corridor.

Three Seattle taxpayers have filed a complaint in King County Superior Court asking a judge to rescind the $81 million purchase of the Renton-to-Snohomish rail corridor that wrapped up in December.

The suit contends the Port of Seattle lacked the legal authority to acquire the Snohomish County portion of the corridor because it lies outside the port’s district, which is entirely within King County.

Businesses and government leaders pinned high hopes on a tourist train running by next summer between Woodinville’s wineries and Snohomish’s historic downtown. Over the long term, there’s also talk of passenger rail service.

“It would be a shame to disrupt the preservation and use of the rail corridor,” County Councilman Dave Somers said. “That rail corridor is going to be extremely valuable in the future.”

The corridor lies mostly in King County, but crosses the Snohomish County line immediately north of Woodinville. All told, it includes about 42 miles, including a spur to Redmond. When Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway sold the corridor, it donated the southern portion between Woodinville and Renton.

In addition to the Port of Seattle, the July 15 lawsuit names BNSF and GNP Railway Inc. of Tacoma. King County and the city of Redmond are named as well.

GNP is a company with an agreement to operate rail on the northern part of the corridor, into Snohomish. Chief Operating Officer Tom Payne said the tourist train remains on track to start by July 2011. He declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Port of Seattle spokeswoman Charla Skaggs declined to comment on pending litigation, but said dozens of public meetings preceded the purchase.

“We continue to feel at the port that it’s an irreplaceable public asset,” Skaggs said.

Before the lawsuit, there were no concerns raised about the corridor being outside the port’s jurisdiction, she said. The port’s long-term plan is to put the corridor in public ownership, she said, not to keep it.

The Seattle residents who brought the complaint are attorney Arthur Lane, retired AAA executive John Allerton and businessman Kenneth Gorohoff. The suit seeks to extend class-action status to all Port of Seattle taxpayers since May 12, 2008. That’s when the port entered into a purchase of sale agreement with BNSF, according to the suit.

The lawsuit also disputes the port’s authority to build or operate passenger transit or recreation trails.

In 2008, Washington Solicitor General Maureen Hart wrote a letter to the plaintiffs’ attorney declining to take action on behalf of taxpayers as the Port of Seattle prepared to buy the corridor. Hart said the matter failed to meet the standards of being “clearly contrary to law” and benefiting taxpayers.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465;

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