Port Kills Airport-Railroad Swap Deal
The July 25 announcement by the Port of Seattle's new Executive Director Tay Yoshitani that the proposed airport-railroad swap deal "for a number of reasons ... doesn't make sense" is a major breakthrough in the battle to save the Eastside railroad and bring some sanity to transportation planning in the region. Yoshitani is a highly regarded professional administrator who does not like murky backroom deals and who is well aware of the fact that the role of the Port is supposed to be to improve our transportation infrastructure, not dismantle it. In case you have not already seen it, be sure to read our blog article about this announcement.
The Spirit of Washington Dinner Train reluctantly made its last run on the Eastside on July 31 (and moved, at least temporarily, to Tacoma), because Burlington Northern refused to renew its lease.
This cessation of service is particularly bad news for downtown Renton but it is not good for the rest of the Eastside either. Worse yet, it was completely unnecessary. It was not done to benefit the region; rather, it is part of the carefully planned program of downgrading the railroad and removing all traffic from it in order to facilitate scrapping.
The immediate excuse for not renewing the lease was that work needs to be done on the Cedar River rail bridge just to the northeast of downtown Renton. The slightly longer-term excuse is that the line will be cut at Wilburton Tunnel in Bellevue in the coming months because of the I-405 freeway widening.
WSDOT had apparently originally intended to keep the railroad intact while widening the freeway, as is a standard practice in such projects. However, it appears that certain local government officials who are intent on scrapping the railroad persuaded WSDOT to change its plans, as a way of making most of the railroad useless and thereby facilitating its scrapping. Clever, huh?
The bridge over the Cedar River is being rebuilt with increased clearances so that Boeing will be able to ship its largest aircraft fuselages to its Renton assembly plant via the section of track through downtown Renton and will thus no longer have to ship them via the main part of the railroad that starts in Snohomish and runs through Bellevue. This removes one more big obstacle to scrapping the line.
Such a scheme is nothing new. There is a long history of major U.S. railroads downgrading and eliminating service on their unwanted branch lines in order to facilitate getting government permission to abandon them. In this case, Burlington Northern has been happily cooperating with King County Executive Ron Sims and others, apparently in return for promises of other favors.
The dinner train has been a major attraction for the Eastside since 1992. It employed a full time staff of 80 persons and contributed more than $10 million annually to the local economy.
A few people have argued that any government agency (new or specially created) that eventually acquires the railroad would be subsidizing a private business if it allowed the dinner train to operate. However, the opposite is the case. In fact, the owner of the train, Eric Temple, is on record as stating that he would be willing to pay rent for the use of the railroad as well as perform maintenance on the tracks.
This unnecessary loss is just another example of the lack of concern about this region by the handful of people who have been devoting so much time (at taxpayer expense) to trying to scrap the railroad. Fortunately, it is still possible for the dinner train to be brought back to Renton (or a second one to be started there), at least if the removal of the tracks is prevented.
The tragic collapse of the major highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis shows how fragile the transportation infrastructure is in this country as a result of decades of neglect. The infrastructure in the Puget Sound region is likewise in poor shape, and we could also have a disaster due to natural (or man-made) causes that results in a loss of life and/or a crippling of a vital corridor. In fact, we are particularly vulnerable here because of our infrequent but inevitable earthquakes.
Our ordinary earthquakes can do considerable damage, particularly if they occur on a fault that lies directly beneath buildings, bridges, etc. But the geological record shows that we can also expect a much larger earthquake, one that could do massive damage throughout the region.
We all know about (but would rather not think about) the potential for collapse of the Seattle Waterfront Viaduct and the SR520 floating bridge. But a large earthquake could also shut down the Burlington Northern's vital rail line through downtown Seattle for a prolonged period. This route is vulnerable at several points, including the century-old tunnel under downtown, the aging bridge over the Ship Canal and the landslide-prone coastal section north of Seattle.
Thus, any good strategic planner would strongly advise that we have some redundancy both in our rail network and in our transportation system as a whole. The Eastside railroad could play an important role in transportation security for the entire region. It could serve as an emergency bypass for north-south rail freight in the event of blockage of the main line through Seattle, and this role would be enhanced through a program of gradually upgrading the tracks.
But the railroad could also play an important role in passenger mobility in the event of a disaster, such as a collapse of freeway bridges on I-405 or even on I-5. The important role of passenger railroads in times of disaster was clearly demonstrated following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area when BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains kept running after freeways collapsed and absorbed a large part of the passenger traffic that formerly used such freeways.
Regional security is just one more reason that it is so foolish to scrap the railroad rather than to retain and gradually upgrade it.
While local officials are busy trying to scrap our railroad and replace it with a bicycle trail, good progress continues to be made on railroad technology and construction both overseas and elsewhere in the U.S.
Todd Edelman, director of Prague-based Green Idea Factory, just sent us information about recent developments with regard to battery powered hybrid diesel-battery DMUs (diesel multiple units) that are being developed and put into operation in Japan and Europe. Although much progress has been made on DMUs recently, this hybrid technology promises still further improvements in fuel efficiency and in emissions reduction. More information can be found in the Railway Gazette news articles August 1, July 1 and May 4.
DMUs are in extensive use on non-electrified railway lines in Europe and Japan, and they are starting to be deployed on new rail transit systems in the U.S. as well. Eastside Rail Now! has been advocating their use on the Eastside railroad because of their very low startup costs (compared to electric light rail), low operating costs, operational flexibility, passenger comfort and environment friendliness. For more information about DMUs, see the Diesel Multiple Unit page on our website.
As another example of the progress being made in Japan, East Japan Railway Co. recently announced that it is planning to launch that country's fastest bullet train service, with a top speed of 320 kph. It will start running on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line between Tokyo and Aomori (at the northern tip of Japan's main island) by the end of fiscal 2010. This exceeds the 300 kph top speed of Japan's now fastest trains (between the Osaka and Fukuoka) and ties the world record currently held by French National Railways' TGV trains.
Contrast that with the streetcar-like system (rather than true rapid transit) that Sound Transit is building for us here at unprecedented cost and that mainly just duplicates existing bus routes. This includes the line to the Eastside (replacing the #550 bus) that has a scheduled completion date of 2027 and is currently budgeted at $3.9 billion (plus the usual cost overruns, etc.).
Eastside Rail Now! conducted another informal public opinion survey regarding the proposal to scrap the Eastside railroad and replace it with a bicycle trail. The results are consistent with earlier such surveys on the Eastside.
This admittedly unscientific survey, conducted by talking to approximately 60 people chosen at random in downtown Kirkland, found that a majority of those surveyed were to some extent aware of the plan to scrap the railroad. It also found that most of the respondents were opposed to the scrapping. In fact, several people were so upset about it that they wanted to talk at great length and the interviewer had difficulty breaking away.
Of all the people contacted, only one expressed a preference for scrapping the railroad in order to construct a bicycle trail.
One question that was asked by several of interviewees both in this survey and in earlier ones was: "Why are they trying to do something so stupid?"
The open letter to King County Executive Ron Sims by Eastside Rail Now! founding member Bill Bailey has received extensive exposure. In addition to being posted on our home page, copies were sent to the Executive as well as to other top elected officials in the State of Washington.
The letter has received several very favorable e-mail responses. In fact, there has been only one negative comment; it stated something to the effect that we should not criticize our elected leaders and we should trust them because they would not do anything that is bad for us.
Most of you have probably not met Bill in person. He is one of several people, including some of our original founders, who never seem to be able to make it to the meetings due to their busy work schedule, etc., but who are still playing an important role in our effort to save the railroad. Thanks Bill!
We were pleased to see yet another increase in the monthly visits to the Eastside Rail Now! web site. Although the increase for July as compared with June was much smaller than the huge 50 percent surge for June, it is still significant. Moreover, this increase occurred in spite of the fact that many people would rather be spending their time enjoying the fine summer weather than reading about the depressing reality of what some politicians are trying to do.
Thanks to everybody who continues to spread the word about our web site or to help out in other ways. The more people who are informed, the greater the chances of winning this battle.
If you don't live in Kirkland, you may have missed the fairly long (pages 2 and 18) article in the August 1st hardcopy edition of the Kirkland Reporter titled "Debate heats up over Eastside rail line." Unfortunately, the article is not available on line.
Erika Hobart, Kirkland Reporter staff writer, did a good job of trying to write a balanced article, as journalists are taught to do. The article contains extensive comments from two Eastside Rail Now! members as well as from King County and Sound Transit officials. The latter two sources have the usual excuses for wanting to scrap the railroad, including that there is no demand for rail transit in the I-405 corridor (even though it is the most congested corridor in the entire Northwest), no money is available to put the tracks back in (after they are torn out at a cost of $66 million) and priority should be given to Sound Transit's East Link light rail line between Seattle and Bellevue (scheduled for completion in 2027).
Don't forget to vote in the primary election on August 21. This primary includes the selection of final candidates for the position of Port of Seattle Commissioner. Although the new Executive Director Tay Yoshitani has shot down the proposed airport-railroad swap, it would still be good to increase the number of reform-oriented Commissioners. One reason is that it is possible that the Port could eventually become involved in a joint project with other governmental agencies to help purchase the railroad for ownership by the public sector, hopefully to preserve and upgrade it.
Eastside Rail Now! recommends Thom McCann, a reform-oriented candidate who has come out strongly in favor of retaining the railroad. Thom also wants to eliminate the property tax (which all of us pay either directly or through higher rent) used to subsidize Port operations, and which would have been used to help provide funds to King County to acquire and dismantle the railroad. You may not be aware that most other major port organizations around the country do not require such a subsidy from the taxpayers.
Eastside Rail Now's next public meeting will be held on August 7 at 7:00 p.m. at the Bellevue Regional Library. As was the case with July, we will not have a second meeting this month.
The library is located near at 1111 110th Avenue NE, west of the I-405 freeway in downtown Bellevue. It is just a few blocks north of the Bellevue Transit Center, should you prefer to use public transportation.
This newsletter is intended mainly for Eastside Rail Now! members. However, as usual, please feel free to send copies to members of other groups with which you are involved, such as neighborhood associations, as well as to friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc. Such retransmission apparently accounts for most of our readership.
Please do not hesitate to send us corrections as well as suggestions for future issues. And be sure to let us know if you want to be removed from the mailing list, or if you are not a regular recipient but would like to be added to it. We can be reached at info at eastsiderailnow.org.
This page created August 9, 2007.
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