Railroad curbs access to Everett waterfront trail

EVERETT — The trail that runs from near the Port Gardner neighborhood to Pigeon Creek Beach is a lot quieter nowadays.

In late June, BNSF Railway closed the underpass at Bond Street, citing safety concerns. The underpass runs under the railroad’s main line, and the city doesn’t have an easement in the railroad’s property.

The pedestrian-only underpass was popular with neighbors who would cross under the BNSF main line to the trail on Port of Everett property that leads down to Pigeon Creek Beach. But walkers had to cross a spur line to get to the trail.

More and more frequently, the railway has been parking long trains, usually hauling coal or petroleum products, for up to several hours at a time along those tracks.

The trail is still there, but now the only way to get to it is via the Everett Avenue bridge, half a mile to the northeast.

Elena Miller, who lives on Laurel Drive on Rucker Hill, used to walk Bentley, her boxer mix, down the Forgotten Creek Trail every day.

“I’ve personally used it for the last five years,” Miller said. “I got a dog because of that.”

Now she has to drive from the Port Gardner neighborhood to the Everett overpass, adding 30 minutes to what could be a 40-minute round trip jaunt, which she said she doesn’t always have time to do.

Sometimes she’s arrived to find all seven parking spots taken.

The residents would like to get the underpass reopened, and they’ve taken to the city to plead their case.

The city may not have much choice. At a City Council meeting Sept. 17, after several residents of the neighborhood implored the city to do something about the closure, the discussion between city and staff turned to what legal options were available.

“We do have a few cards in our hand and we’re willing to play those and be as forceful as we can,” said Mayor Ray Stephanson.

The city has been researching earlier agreements it made between the city and the port about that underpass, and whether there might be a clause the city could use to compel the railroad to open it.

That doesn’t look very likely, however.

“We are still looking at agreements to make sure there’s not a potential solution there,” city communications director Meghan Pembroke said.

Bob Jackson, the president of the Port Gardner Neighborhood Association, said the closure has not only reduced the use of the trail, but attracted more homeless people.

“Since the fence went up, there are fewer people going to the beach, so there’s more camping down there,” Jackson said.

He hopes the city will do whatever it can, possibly talking with consultants who have dealt with rails and trails issues in the past.

It may not do any good. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said the underpass was not a permitted crossing and crossing there is illegal.

“BNSF has experienced numerous trespassing situations in that area,” Melonas said. “There were repeated reports that the public would cross through or under the parked trains in this area.”

The City Council has asked staff to draw up a resolution in which it will express its desire to have the underpass reopened.

“It shows there’s a broad base of support for reopening the access point,” City Councilman Rich Anderson said.

“The railroad was granted vast powers, but you’d think they’d want to be a good neighbor,” he said.

Whether strong words will have an effect or not remains to be seen. The city’s only other option would be constructing a much more expensive pedestrian overpass, which would require coordination with the Port of Everett and BNSF.

“At the end of the day the railroad will probably do what the railroad wants to do, but I don’t think that we should be silent, and not strongly add our voice of objection to this closure,” Stephanson told the council last week.

For the moment, the trail is a strip of concrete a little longer than half a mile that doesn’t get much use. For much of its length its view is of shipping containers and port buildings on one side and steep bluffs or — more often these days — parked coal trains on the other.

Even so, Miller has seen sea lions, orcas and even a gray whale from the beach, and the trail used to be fairly heavily used by local families.

“In the summer when we’re walking we used to see people with strollers. This year it’s just dead,” she said.

During a 45-minute walk down to the beach and back Monday afternoon with a reporter and photographer, she encountered only one other person on the trail. He was wearing a large camping backpack, headed toward the beach.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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