To prosperity, by rail

When I was in high school laying a roof on my family’s 100-year-old hardware store, I watched trains as they screeched under the Hewitt Trestle in Everett and thought they were a nuisance.

Now I think they are a godsend.

Snohomish County pioneers certainly thought so.

Arriving by horse-drawn wagon or ship and hauling gear over muddy roads was a huge challenge in the late 1800s. Railroad connections to the east and along Puget Sound offered hope for our early industries like timber, coal and mining.

Today, railroads can offer new opportunities for economic growth, expanded tourism, recreational access to trails and a portal to our history for young people.

It starts with the economy

When Amtrak service to Vancouver, B.C., was reinstated in 1995, former Second District Congressman Al Swift told us that further improvements in passenger rail would come “in the slipstream of freight.” The recent announcement of $145 million in new federal funds for rail by Rep. Rick Larsen underscores this with projects to relieve choke points in Everett and Blaine.

Leaders from Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties have banded together to urge state officials to pursue more federal investment in rail to relieve I-5 bottlenecks that now stretch to the Skagit Valley. Officials from the Tulalip Tribes, Arlington and Marysville will meet later this month in a potentially powerful partnership to market nearly 1,000 acres of industrially zoned land along I-5 as a “rail port,” with easy access to the freeway and tracks.

Snohomish County is an aerospace industry hub. The Boeing tanker contract and the tantalizing possibility of a new generation 737 aircraft have local leaders envisioning a “supersized industrial center” north of the severe traffic congestion in Seattle. The Port of Everett, already a key shipping center for Boeing, plans to grow as a rail hub and estimates 30,000 jobs already are linked to port activity.

But much more can be done. While South County communities await the extension of Sound Transit North Link light rail to Lynnwood, we can boost lagging Sounder commuter train ridership with private sector funding for a potential Interbay station in Seattle and mixed use development. Sounder commuters who work in the north section of downtown Seattle and Lake Union can shorten travel times through new “rapid ride” Metro service and bicycle lanes without having to double back from King Street station. A newer ferry/rail terminal in Mukilteo would improve access for Whidbey Island commuters, too.

Looking north, an informal group of North Sound leaders have worked for many years to improve intercounty bus and train service. Dubbed the “Farmhouse Gang” when they launched the grassroots initiative at a Skagit County restaurant in 1997, their efforts led to a highly successful intercounty bus connector linking Bellingham, Mount Vernon, Camano Island and Everett.

In 2009, Washington Department of Transportation officials joined state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen and Stanwood leaders in dedicating their new Stanwood station at the historic Great Northern Railway location. Marysville and Tulalip leaders have also discussed a train stop for future generations.

Community leaders are pushing for a third Amtrak Cascades mid-day round trip to Vancouver, B.C., and hope a transportation agreement between Gov. Chris Gregoire and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell signed at the 2010 Olympic Games will result in Canadian investment.

Recognizing that the international Amtrak Cascades service may not address local commuter and potential weekend excursion service to summer festivals and tribal entertainment complexes, the Farmhouse group has been exploring with Sound Transit and state Transportation Department leaders the possibility of an “Interurban” service from Bellingham/Blaine to Everett to connect with the Sounder and supplement the twice-a-day Amtrak Cascades service.

History is our guide

From 1910 to 1939, Interurban rail connected Everett and Seattle with regularly scheduled trains. By 1927, the North Coast Line had integrated bus and rail service to Mount Vernon and Bellingham.

The Interurban cars of old were self-propelled, ornate and luxurious, with inlaid mahogany interiors, leaded windows, leather seats and brass fixtures.

Today’s version of the locomotive-less rail cars are called Diesel Multiple Units and like the popular Cascades high-speed Talgo trains, they have WiFi, food service, handicapped restrooms and plenty of bike space.

These trains will soon serve a remarkable 71-mile rail and trail project in California’s Sonoma and Marin counties.

Everett to Snohomish connector?

Snohomish County leaders envision someday building a new 7-mile passenger rail connector by the Burlington Northern freight rail line from Everett to Snohomish. Utility rights of way exist nearby, as does a proposed sewer line.

The rail connector would access the Woodinville-to-Renton rail corridor, owned with multiple partners by the Port of Seattle. From Snohomish you could travel by train or pathway to Woodinville wineries and trails, or connect to the coming Link light rail service in Bellevue or to the Microsoft campus Redmond. Eventually you could complete the east Lake Washington loop in the Tukwila area for Sound Transit connections to Sea-Tac Airport and Amtrak Cascades service to Portland and Eugene, Ore. Sound Transit is acquiring part of the line in Bellevue and reserving transit easements to Woodinville.

By leveraging public and private financing and an existing rail right of way, we can have more travel options, better connect our incredible trail network and re-energize town centers at a fraction of the cost of acquiring new transportation rights of way through expensive real estate.

Midday trains could carry school kids to learn about our rich history of Indian trading routes and small towns clustered around sawmills and one-room school houses.

I look forward to a day when we can trade the I-5 crawl to Sea-Tac for a comfortable train ride through Silvana on the way to the Bellingham airport for a flight to Hawaii. Or a weekend train trip to Snohomish to off-load bicycles for a day ride to Arlington on the beautiful Centennial Trail.

On a crystal clear day, Mount Pilchuck reminds us to look beyond sprawling suburbs and think about the pioneers of our history, and that there are still constants to our geography. It is just nicer to see them by train.

About the author
Bruce Agnew is director of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, which promotes high-speed passenger rail and other transportation solutions from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, Ore. He is a former member of the Snohomish County Council. Contact him at bagnew@discovery.org.

NEXT SUNDAY: How public-private partnerships can pay for the vision of rail connecting our communities and providing jobs, and who would be in charge.

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