Q: Is it true that there is actually a serious plan to scrap the railroad line that runs through the Eastside?
A: Yes. And not only is there a plan, but it is being pushed aggressively.
Q: What does it mean to "scrap" the railroad?
A: It means that the tracks (including the rails and ties) and most other infrastructure (such as road crossing signals) would be removed and either sold, used elsewhere or discarded. Another term that is used for scrapping is dismantling.
Q: Who wants to dismantle the railroad?
A: This is being pushed mainly by King County Executive Ron Sims.
Q: Why does Ron Sims want to scrap the railroad?
A: The publicly stated reason is that he wants to use the railroad's right of way for a bicycle trail.
Q: But Ron Sims stated that he is in favor of both a trail and a railroad. What is going on?
A: Sims has been surprised by the strong opposition to his plan to scrap the railroad, and is now trying to de-emphasize that part of the plan in his speeches and articles. He is now saying basically that the right of way should be used for both a bicycle trail and a transit system, but that the tracks should be removed temporarily and replaced by a trail. Then he would be eager to apply for federal and state aid to reinstall the tracks.
Q: This doesn't seem to make any sense, removing the tracks and then applying for aid to put them back in?
A: Sims' strategy is to try to convince the public and other politicians that the existing tracks are useless for transit, and that they would have to be removed anyway. He knows that it could be decades before they could be reinstalled, or perhaps never. He apparently thinks that just emphasizing saving the right of way could make him look like a visionary.
Q: Is it necessary to remove the tracks and put in new ones that could be used by transit?
A: No. The existing tracks are in good condition for a branch line, as evidenced by the fact that they are used daily by the dinner train and by freight trains. They are fine for starting a simple pilot transit service. They can then be gradually upgraded while the transit and other railroad functions remain in operation. This has been standard railroad practice for more than a century in the U.S. and abroad.
Q: When will the dismantling start?
A: Ron Sims wants it to begin as soon as possible. The first step could be if and when Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) severs the track in Bellevue later this year or in early 2008 in conjunction with the widening the I-405 freeway. Then, King County would begin removal of the rest of the track between northern Renton and Woodinville as soon as it acquires the railroad from Burlington Northern Railway.
Q: What about the section of track between Woodinville and Snohomish?
A: According to sources in Shohomish County, Sims originally proposed to scrap that section too. However, he relented because of the immediate and strong opposition, including from industries which rely on that segment for freight service. Indeed, it superficially looks like great news for Snohomish, because that city hopes that the Spirit of Washington dinner train can run on the Woodinville to Shohomish section and thereby give big boost to the antique stores and other tourist-oriented businesses in downtown Snohomish.
Q: What about the longer term plan for the Woodinville to Snohomish section?
A: This is a very important point. After the Renton to Woodinville section has been gone for a few years, it will become much easier for those who want to scrap the entire railroad to dismantle the Woodinville to Snohomish section. This is because the Eastside railroad as a whole will have lost its value as a potential transit route and there will no longer be much interest on the part of people between Renton and Woodinville in fighting to keep the Woodinville to Snohomish segment. The residents of the Eastside from Renton, Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond (in which a branch line is located) have much political influence over King County council members, whereas Woodinville by itself has relatively little and Snohomish has none. Thus, King County will be able to move ahead with its plans virtually unimpeded. This is classic divide and conquer strategy.
Q: How much would it cost to replace the railroad with a trail?
A: The official figure for the construction costs alone is about $66 million.
Q: Who would pay for the dismantling?
A: It would ultimately be paid by the taxpayers in the form of higher property taxes and thus higher rents as well. Although the funds would initially be provided by the Port of Seattle, the Port obtains a large portion of its funds from property taxes. In addition, Sims in early April proposed a $200 million property tax increase to spend on parks and trails, part of which could also be used to construct and maintain the trail.
Q: Would there be additional costs of getting rid of the railroad?
A: Yes, the $66 million is just the beginning. The total costs are vastly greater. One of the most immediate costs would be the loss of the dinner train, which has provided an important economic benefit to the Eastside. Another type of cost would be the loss of freight service. For example, several industries in Bellevue rely on the railroad, one of which has 125 employees. But the greatest cost by far would be the loss of the possibility of using the railroad for rail transit.
Q: Why doesn't Ron Sims want to keep the railroad for existing railroad functions and also use it for transit?
A: The official explanation has been that the right of way would be preserved under the rails-to-trails program so that it could be used for other transportation purposes some day, such as for busses or light rail. It is also claimed that the track in very bad condition and would need to be replaced anyway before use for transit. One King County spokesperson stated that "Sound Transit is already running express busses on the parallel freeway and thus no competing rail is needed." An additional reason is that severing the line south of Bellevue would reduce the cost of a multi-billion dollar freeway widening project by millions of dollars because the existing tunnel under the railroad would not have to be widened and could instead be converted into a much cheaper open cut. For more about this, please visit the page Eastside Rail Costs and Finance.
Q: How valid are these reasons?
A: Actually, none of them really make any sense. For example, surveys by independent experts have confirmed that the track is, in fact, in fairly good condition and is sufficient to begin a pilot transit service almost immediately. Upgrading of the track, including smoothing and adding some passing sidings could be done at a tiny fraction of the cost that Sound Transit has spent on its light rail and Sounder commuter rail projects. Also, the busses are little used during most of the day because people generally prefer to drive than ride busses. In addition, the claimed savings from severing the track to widen the freeway are very misleading.
Q: Why couldn't King County keep the railroad intact after it purchases it from Burlington Northern and let it continue to operate the way it does now?
A: It could. And there is even a company that said it would be willing to operate the railroad, perform maintenance on it and pay rent to King County for it. This would be a good deal for everyone, but opponents of the railroad have refused to accept it, as the main objective is to remove the tracks and do it as quickly as possible.
Q: Would it be possible to keep the track and build a trail along side it?
A: Yes, most definitely, and there are other examples of trails adjacent to railroads that have worked out very well. The Eastside railroad right of way is mostly a generous 100 feet in width. This is sufficient for the track (or even two tracks) plus a trail plus a linear nature preserve. The trail could be added in stages as funds become available. But enemies of the railroad still say no.
Q: Ripping out the rails doesn't seem to make any sense, given the severe traffic congestion on the parallel freeway and the fact that other cities around the country are rushing to start transit service on little-used railroads. Can this really be a serious proposal?
A: Yes, the threat is very real. In fact, there is a recent precedent for it. When Burlington Northern sold its rail line that ran from Redmond along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish to Issaquah several years ago, there was an inexplicable rush by King County to rip out the rails. This was in spite the fact that the line could have served as an excellent rail transit route between the two rapidly growing communities and despite vehement protests from some property owners along the line. Ironically, Issaquah is now trying to raise funds to reinstall track along a short segment to extend its trolley service from downtown to the southern tip of Lake Sammamish.
Q: Is there any public support for removing the railroad?
A: At least two informal polls have shown that there is very little support for removing the tracks. Many people have said: "Keeping the railroad intact is a no brainer." Others have described King County's plan as "bizarre." Unfortunately, the problem is that most residents of the Eastside are still not really aware of the situation. One reason for this is because the media keep mentioning that the right of way is being acquired for eventual transit use. Of course, that looks like a good thing, until you read deeper and find out that the tracks will be ripped out. And once gone, it will be extremely costly and difficult politically to reinstall them.
Q: As this proposal is being pushed by just a handful of government officials and is not in the best interests of the residents of the Eastside or even the region as a whole, what is really going on?
A: It has been suggested that it is some sort of backroom political deal, but nobody is willing to talk openly about it, at least not so far. It should be kept in mind that this is not the only instance of a handful of people in government making a decision that is grossly against the public interest. This is the reason that citizen action is necessary.
Q: Is it too late to stop the dismantling?
A: No, there is still time because the Port of Seattle Commissioners and King County Council have not yet voted on it.
Q: What is the best way to try to stop this?
A: Contact King County Council members, Port of Seattle Commissioners, State legislators and our members of Congress and let them know that you are concerned and that this is not in the public interest. Also inform friends and neighbors of the situation and encourage them to likewise contact government officials. Please refer to the page Contact Data for Government Officials.
Q: Will the politicians listen?
A: Some of them are already on our side, and some of the others will listen if they hear from enough people. They are concerned about votes and getting reelected. Also, some of them really want to do the right thing and are concerned about their legacy. In addition, some politicians may have not been fully informed about the situation or may have not been aware of how strongly the public feels about this issue.
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This page created March 5, 2007. Last updated July 17, 2007.
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