The BNSF Corridor Preservation Study1 (referred to below as the PSRC report) is a document published by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) in early 2007 that examines the current state of the rail line that runs through the Eastside (referred to below as the Eastside railroad2) and that makes recommendations regarding its future uses.
The PSRC is a four county (King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish) regional planning organization that deals mainly with growth and transportation issues, and to a lesser degree with economic development. It is composed of elected leaders from the country governments and from the cities, ports, transit districts and Native American tribes within those counties as well as some officials from state agencies and some interest group representatives.3
The railroad was studied by the PSRC staff and an outside consultant, HDR Engineering, Inc.,4 during 2005 and 2006. The final report is massive in size at 37 MB (plus another 48.2 MB of accompanying aerial maps). Its main body is a 817 KB, 74-page PDF document. The total cost was approximately $800,000.5 The report was unanimously approved by PSRC's Transportation Policy Board on February 8, 2007 and then by its Executive Board on February 22, 2007.
"Findings" and Recommendations of the PSRC Report
The PSRC report has six so-called findings, which are (quoting directly from the report)6:
1 Must preserve key unique corridor
The report also has two basic recommendations:
1. The Eastside railroad's corridor should be preserved.
These recommendations have frequently been cited by several local politicians and certain government agencies as a justification for their policies with regard to the railroad.8
Major Defects in the PSRC Report
The PSRC report is quite impressive at first glance. It is massive in size, contains an abundance of high quality photographs and drawings, makes frequent use of trendy buzzwords, lacks obvious grammatical errors and contains endorsements from a number of local political and business leaders. This is probably a major reason that few people appear to have looked at it carefully, must less to have questioned it.
Eastside Rail Now!9 began a careful study of the PSRC report soon after its publication. This was in response to the facts that (a) the central recommendation to replace the railroad with a bicycle trail appeared to conflict with common sense,10 (b) a close reading of the report led to serious concerns about both its methodology and its objectivity and (c) it appeared that the political leadership and media were accepting its validity on blind faith instead of studying it carefully.11
It was found that the report is severely flawed. In fact, it contains not just one, but several major problems. Moreover, each such problem is so serious that it alone would render the report inadequate for making rational policy decisions about the future of the railroad and its right of way.
The major defects with the PSRC report are as follows:
1. Failure to Use Any Recognized Infrastructure Evaluation Methodology
The PSRC report does not use standard cost-benefit analysis12 or least cost planning methodology (LCPM)13, both of which are widely accepted, best practices techniques for making objective decisions about transportation and other infrastructure. In fact, it does not employ any recognized transportation infrastructure decision making approach and does not make even the most elementary attempt to do so.14 An analogy would be trying to conduct a physics or biology experiment without using the scientific method.
Failing to use cost-benefit analysis or LCPM allows the report to omit the massive opportunity cost to the region of scrapping the railroad. That cost, which is the loss of all of the benefits that could be attained from use of the railroad (as discussed below), would dwarf any possible gains from scrapping the railroad and constructing a bicycle trail on its roadbed.
Moreover, the use of LCPM for making major decisions about transportation infrastructure has been required by Washington State law since July 1, 1994.15, and is the paramount transportation planning obligation of the PSRC under state law. Thus, any decisions with regard to the railroad that are based on the report have a very tenuous legal basis.
2. Failure to Evaluate the Railroad's Potential for Transit Service
The PSRC report largely ignores the most important potential use for the Eastside railroad, which is serving as the core of a regional commuter rail system that could be launched almost immediately and at an exceedingly low cost. Among its few statements in this context are that there is little or no demand for rail transit in the railroad's north-south corridor, that the railroad is poorly located for passenger service, and that the track is in poor condition so that it would be basically useless for such service.16 The first two of these statements are completely incorrect, and the third is highly misleading.
The report makes vague reference to an earlier report which is said to show there is no demand for rail in the corridor and states that it will respect17 such report. However, that report apparently also lacks solid methodology. Moreover, it was conducted several years ago and is out of date. At the very least, the PSRC report should have explained how this, and any other earlier studies, reached their conclusions, and it should have looked at the many ways in which the data supporting prior conclusions could have changed in the past seven years or so.18 Better yet, it should have taken a fresh look at the potential demand in the corridor using some widely accepted and objective methodology.
Actually, the Eastside railroad is very well suited for transit service, and, in fact, could become the most cost-effective rail transit route in the entire region. In particular, it runs through the heart of the rapidly growing Eastside, which is rivaling nearby Seattle in terms of population and economic activity. It passes through or near most major destinations on the Eastside, including:
Moreover, it parallels I-405, which is the most congested freeway in the state of Washington21 and whose congestion will likely continue to worsen despite plans to spend many more billions of dollars for further widening. In addition, an existing track connection in Snohomish would allow commuter trains to run through the Eastside all the way to Everett and beyond in the north, and restoration of a short section of track west of Renton would allow trains to run directly22 to Tacoma and beyond in the south.
The location of the Eastside railroad is so good, in fact, that it would be difficult to imagine any corridor through the Eastside with a better location, with the possible exception of something that was constructed from scratch at a cost of many billions of dollars and whose construction had severe environmental effects.
Thus, the railroad clearly has a tremendous ridership potential. It is certainly much greater than that for Sound Transit's Sounder commuter route from Seattle to Everett (currently with roughly 700 riders per day23), and the cost could be lower than for both Sounder operations (because there would be no need to make huge payments to BNSF for track use should the railroad come into public ownership). Ridership could also eventually rival that for the Sounder route between Seattle and Tacoma, which is currently averaging roughly 8,000 per weekday, because of the growth in population density and economic activity along the route and because it would be possible to operate service in both directions throughout the day (in contrast to the very limited service that the Sounder can provide).
Furthermore, the railroad is still operating24 and is available at a low cost25. Also, the track is in fair to good condition and is thus suitable for an initial pilot commuter service.26 The entire railroad could be substantially upgraded to increase speeds greatly, to smooth the ride and to increase capacity for about $200 million27, which is roughly what Sound Transit spends for a single mile of its light rail construction and a fraction of what it costs to add an equivalent capacity to I-405.28
The PSRC report mentions that increased traffic on the railroad would have a negative effect on traffic on some nearby roads because of the existence of grade crossings. However, it should be kept in mind that nearly every railroad line in the U.S. has grade crossings, including those that are used by Sound Transit for its Sounder commuter rail service, and this is rarely, if ever, considered a valid reason for not using a railroad. In fact, there are even numerous grade crossings on Sound Transit's light rail line which is being built from scratch in Seattle. 29
3. Ignoring the Most Important Environmental Issue
The PSRC report looks only at the direct effects on the environment of constructing a trail and of expanding rail operations. The negative effects of the former would be trivial, and those of the latter would also be relatively minor in the event that the railroad were upgraded to allow the level of service that is found on many other commuter rail lines in the U.S. (e.g., hourly service).
The report completely ignores the vastly greater environmental benefits that would accrue from the use of the railroad for transit. These benefits would result from slowing the massively expensive and virtually continuous widening projects on the parallel I-405 freeway and connecting arterials, with their consequent growth of toxic emissions (including localized air pollution, greenhouse gases and toxic runoff) and promotion of sprawl. Moreover, the construction process itself, particularly the production and transport of the concrete, also results in a substantial generation of greenhouse gases.30 In fact, it is likely that starting a transit service on the railroad could be the one of the most effective things that could be done on the Eastside to combat global warming.31
The report also fails to look at the considerable direct adverse environmental effects that would result from removing the tracks and then reinstalling them at a later date. These are effects that could largely be avoided by keeping the track in place and gradually upgrading it.
4. Ignoring the Most Important Economic Issues
The PSRC report is flawed with regard to the effects on the economy in a manner somewhat analogous to its failings with regard to environmental issues. That is, it only looks at some effects on nearby properties and businesses of constructing a trail and increasing rail service, and it completely overlooks the vastly greater benefits that would accrue to the Eastside and to the region as a whole from utilizing the railroad as the core of a regional commuter rail transit system. Moreover, these benefits would not be of a one-time nature, but rather would increase over time.
These benefits include the time and expense that could be saved by commuters and the consequent greater range of choice (i.e., of transport modes and lifestyles) that such savings would provide. In addition to savings for train passengers, there could also be savings to road users, to the extent that the availability of the rail alternative would reduce, or at least slow, the growth of traffic congestion. The availability of a commuter rail service would also make road pricing, were it to be implemented some day, more effective by providing an attractive and lower-cost alternative for road users.
An additional type of economic benefit resulting from the utilization of the Eastside railroad as the core of a regional commuter rail service would be helping ensure that the Eastside remains an attractive location for both existing and new businesses. Many residents of the Seattle area vividly remember the departure of Boeing's corporate headquarters for Chicago in 2001, with that company emphasizing the poor quality of transportation in the Puget Sound Region as a major factor in its decision. Chicago, in contrast, is blessed with an extensive network of suburban commuter rail lines as well as an urban rapid transit system.32
Moreover, it has been shown in city after city throughout the U.S. and abroad that the creation of a rail transit system can be a powerful incentive for the development of high density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods around the stations (as well as lead to large increases in nearby property values). This results in a large and long-term stimulus to the local economy, and it also allows an increasing number of people to benefit from the availability of the rail service. There is little reason to think that the situation would be any different on the Eastside. In fact, the effect could be even greater than in many other regions because of the continued rapid growth in population and economic activity and the ever-increasing congestion on I-405.
To its credit, the PSRC report does mention that loss of the railroad would preclude the return of the dinner train to its former base of operations in Renton. Although tiny in comparison to the benefits that could be achieved from the use of the railroad for a commuter service, it still is significant. During its 15 years of operation on the Eastside, that train carried and entertained in excess of 1.3 million diners, including more than 600,000 visitors from out of state. It provided 80 full-time jobs and pumped more than $140 million into the local economy, or close to $10 million per year. It also played a key role in the revival of downtown Renton.33 The economic benefits from a return of that train would likely exceed those from the bicycle trail, particularly as the region already has an extensive network of trails, some of which run parallel to parts of the railroad.34
5. Failure to Fully Consider the Potential Freight Role of the Railroad
The PSRC report correctly states that the freight use of the Eastside railroad has declined in recent years and is now relatively light.35 However, it is possible that there could be a substantial increase in rail freight traffic in the region in the next few years, and that this could affect demand for use of the Eastside railroad.
One reason would be a serious commitment to reducing the output of greenhouse gases by a substantial percentage rather than just slowing down its rate of increase. Railroads, particularly with the newest, low-emissions locomotives, generate far less greenhouse gases per ton of freight moved than do trucks.
Another reason is a continued increase in the price of fuel. The price of crude oil, which is a major component in the price of gasoline and diesel fuels, is already close to $100 per barrel and will likely continue to rise due to declining output of major oil fields and soaring worldwide demand. Coming on top of this long term upward trend could be sharp price surges resulting from increased military action in the Middle East, sabotage of major pipelines or refineries, changes in oil export policies, etc.36
Although it is obviously impractical to shift all truck traffic to trains, there is a substantial amount of freight that could be shifted, particularly with the passage of time, if strong measures were to be taken with regard to greenhouse gas emissions and/or large increases in fuel prices continue.37 Retaining the Eastside railroad would greatly facilitate such a shift on the Eastside.
The PSRC report states that it would require "an exceedingly costly investment of over several hundred million dollars" to upgrade the railroad so that it has the same freight hauling capacity as the main line through Seattle.38 However, this statement should be treated with caution because it is based on the assumption of a very intensive freight service that would be supported by the construction of five new passing sidings, each 1.5 miles in length. In fact, a very substantial increase in freight service could be accommodated without such additional sidings, as is clear from the fact that the railroad had a much larger volume of freight service a number of years ago, than at present, without them. The report also fails to mention that its estimate for the approximately 42-mile railroad is roughly what Sound Transit spends for a single mile of its light rail system, as discussed above. It additionally neglects to point out that this relatively small expenditure would result in an upgrading of the railroad not only for a greatly expanded freight capacity but also for a high quality commuter service.
The ultimate freight destiny of the Eastside railroad is not as a heavy duty mainline route comparable to the BNSF line through downtown Seattle. Rather, it as a primarily commuter railroad that can and must play a complementary role to the freight service on the Seattle route, including serving as an emergency substitute for that route's most urgent traffic (as discussed below).
6. Failure to Fully Consider the Role of the Railroad in Regional Security
The PSRC report also fails to consider the role of the Eastside railroad in regional, state and national security. The great security potential of the railroad is obvious from the fact that the Seattle area is particularly vulnerable to severe earthquakes and other natural and man-made disasters, and the fact that the railroad is the only north-south rail substitute within hundreds of miles for BNSF's heavily used but fragile main line through downtown Seattle. The Eastside railroad would provide an alternative route for the most urgent north-south rail freight in the event that the main freight line were damaged. Upgrades to the track made mainly for the purpose of allowing higher speeds and greater capacity for commuter train service would likewise enhance this emergency bypass role by allowing the operation of longer, faster and more frequent freight trains.
There are additional potential roles for the railroad in regional security. For example, a major earthquake could cause freeway bridges to collapse on I-405 and commuter trains on the railroad would be the only remaining major north-south artery on the Eastside. Also, railroads typically provide the most efficient means of mass evacuation and for bringing in large volumes of supplies in times of a severe disaster. The retention of the railroad additionally provides insurance against the possibility of a sudden and prolonged cutoff of imported oil due to war, terrorism, etc.39
7. Failure to Consider the Importance of Preserving the Full Right of Way
That the Eastside railroad's corridor is a unique asset and is worthy of preservation is so obvious that it barely needs to be reiterated. Yet, determining this was one of the primary purposes of the PSRC report, according to its authors.40 And the importance of preserving the corridor has been repeated so often by some proponents of scrapping the railroad that it appears as if it were designed to divert attention from two other preservation issues likewise of great importance to the region.
They are preservation of the railroad itself (i.e., the tracks, bridges, crossing signals and other infrastructure) and preservation of the full width (mostly 100 feet) of its right of way. Interestingly, the PSRC report, in addition to trivializing the former, fails to fully consider the latter. Rather, it keeps mentioning that it is in favor of preserving the corridor. This leaves open the possibility of eventually stripping the right of way of much of its width and retaining only a narrow strip of land, perhaps only 20 or 25 feet, which is sufficient for a trail or single track, and allowing the remainder to be sold off to developers.
A narrowing of the right of way would be very bad for several reasons. One is that replacement of the tracks by a supposedly interim trail would make it much more difficult to put the tracks back in at a later date. This is because there would be no room left for both a trail and a track, and thus there would be intense opposition to removing the trail. Just as there would be intense, and probably insurmountable, opposition to removing the Burke-Gilman trail or any of the many other trails in the region.
There are additional reasons that this would be very harmful to the region. One is that it could preclude, or at least make it extremely difficult, to add a second track. Although the initial traffic volume could likely be handled by a single track with a few judiciously located passing sidings (such as those that already exist in Bellevue and Woodinville), eventually more passing sidings or a second track would be needed if the region continues to grow as projected.
Moreover, stripping the right of way of much or most of its width for commercial development precludes another important use as a linear park and/or linear nature preserve and wildlife migration corridor41 alongside the railroad. Few urban areas have the opportunity to create such an asset, and at minimal cost.
8. Lack of Fiscally Responsibility
Were the Eastside railroad's tracks to be removed, it would likely become increasingly urgent to reinstall them in the next few years. This is because of the inevitability of continuation of the upward trend oil prices and of intensifying traffic congestion on I-405. It is also because of the likelihood of growing public pressure to make meaningful reductions in the output of greenhouse gases.
However, it would be far more expensive to reinstall the tracks after they were removed than to retain and gradually upgrade them. There are several reasons for this. One is that the cost of removing the tracks and constructing a trail on their roadbed would be roughly $66 million dollars, according to King County estimates. The cost of subsequently reinstalling them would be several times this amount because of the need to purchase and transport new materials, rehabilitate the roadbed, reinstall road crossings, etc. Adding to the cost of reinstallation would be legal requirements to meet higher environmental standards than to maintain or replace the current rails as well as the substantial amount of engineering, permitting work and possible legal appeals that would be required. Moreover, all of this could drag the reinstallation process out for many years, further adding to the total cost.42 The result would be many hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars of extra expenditure that would be unnecessary were the railroad to be kept intact.43
9. An Appearance of Bias
When making decisions that affect the public, it is important that such decisions be made objectively and on the basis of what is best for the citizenry as a whole. That is, there should be no bias or conflict of interest (just as there should not be in scientific experiments). Moreover, there should not even be any appearance of bias or conflict of interest.
However, the PSRC report clearly shows a tremendous bias against retaining and upgrading the railroad and in favor of scrapping it in order to build a bicycle trail on its roadbed. This can be seen by the problems discussed above, including the failure to use any recognized infrastructure decision making methodology and the failure to consider the huge opportunity costs, massive replacement expenses and other cost-effective considerations.
Another indication of a potentially severe conflict of interest is the fact that King Cushman, the PSRC's staff project manager for the report, is also a director of the Cascade Bicycle Club.44 That organization has been actively supporting replacement of the railroad by a bicycle trail and has been closely allied with King County Executive Ron Sims, who has spearheaded the push to scrap the railroad.45 The question remains as to why someone was not selected to lead the project who both did not have (at least the appearance of) a conflict of interest and could effectively apply a rational and best practices methodology that fully considered all of the costs and benefits to the region of scrapping the railroad.46
Findings about the "Findings"
It is clear that the PSRC report has made serious errors and/or omissions with regard to five of its six so-called findings.
Only the third finding, that "Boeing's Renton plant can be served by widening the Cedar River bridge," is both technically correct and reasonably complete. However, it has been known for quite some time that this truss bridge is just slightly too narrow to accommodate Boeing's largest 737 fuselages without damage and that the bridge could be widened (although at substantial cost), so this should hardly come as any major revelation. And it certainly does not require such a costly study to determine that the bridge can be widened. Moreover, this finding is trivial because it would be a non-issue if the railroad were not to be scrapped (which is both completely unnecessary and totally unwise, as discussed in detail above).
The first finding, "Must preserve key unique corridor," is likewise entirely obvious and does not require such a costly study to come to this conclusion. However, it is incomplete, as discussed above, in that it fails to deal adequately with the also important issues of preserving both the railroad itself and the full width of its right of way.
The second purported finding, that the "Corridor is not a strategic regional or freight corridor," is clearly a serious error. The railroad, which runs in the corridor, is strategic in that it is the only alternate north-south rail line within hundreds of miles of the strategic but vulnerable BNSF main line through Seattle. It is also strategic because it is the only railroad to traverse an area with a level of population and economic activity rivaling that of Seattle, and because it provides some insurance against both future large increases in fuel costs and a need to take drastic action with regard to climate change.
The fourth finding, "Respect prior north-south public transit studies in Eastside corridor," is actually an assumption, not a finding, and it is a very bad one. It is the assumption that the finding by some report(s) compiled years ago that buses using freeway carpool lanes is the best solution for the Eastside is both correct and still relevant. If buses on freeways are truly the ideal solution, why are they not being used in Seattle instead of the enormously expensive Sounder commuter trains? They would be far cheaper, largely because of the massive payments that have made to BNSF for trackage rights.
Were suburban commuter rail lines around Chicago, Boston, San Jose and many other cities converted to what the PSRC report refers to as more cost effective buses running on freeway carpool lanes, there would be howls of protest. There is a vast amount of empirical evidence in the U.S. and abroad that there is a strong consumer preference for trains over buses, particularly in more affluent areas (such as the Eastside) where there is a higher rate of automobile ownership.
The somewhat confusing fifth finding, that "Medium term time frame needed to achieve passenger rail objectives," apparently means two things, according to the explanation that follows it.47 One is that the railroad trackbed should be used as a trail for at least 20 years. The other is that it would require many years of study, permitting, etc. (11 to 20 years from now) to reinstall the tracks or to install some other sort of transit system. The former is clearly incorrect, as has been discussed elsewhere in this article. The latter is correct but obvious.
The sixth finding, "Optimize cost-effectiveness of trail development," looks reasonable on a superficial level. That is because the cost of any project should be minimized for any given level of quality. However, it should only be minimized in the absence of externalities (i.e., no negative effects on other projects, facilities, etc.).
What the authors really mean by this statement is that it would be much cheaper in the short run to remove the tracks and construct the trail on the railroad's trackbed than to build it parallel to the tracks. This is because it would eliminate the need for costly changes to the contour of the often sloping earth parallel to the retained track and would also allow the trail to use bridges and trestles that are now used by the track.
The problem with this is that it only minimizes the short-term cost for building the trail itself and it greatly increases the cost to the region as a whole because of the immense opportunity cost of scrapping the railroad. It is also much more costly for the region as a whole because of the much greater expenditure that would be required to reinstall the tracks.
There is still another possible reason lurking behind the "cost effective" claim of the PSRC report. It is that building the trail on top of the railroad roadbed would allow a narrowing of the corridor from its generous 100 feet to perhaps as little as 20 or 25 feet and would thus facilitate selling off the remaining 75 or 80 feet to developers. While this would provide a short-term increase in public sector revenues, such financial benefit would be greatly outweighed by the permanent loss of a truly unique and irreplaceable asset.
All six of the so-called findings are really either obvious, misleading, erroneous and/or not findings at all. Also, of the two main recommendations, the first is obvious, but still misleading, and the second is completely erroneous.
Although the PSRC report completely fails in its stated goal of investigating the most appropriate uses for the railroad, all is not lost. It does collect some interesting, but not really novel, facts about the railroad, and it does provide a large amount of nice aerial photos and drawings of how the right of way might look with a bicycle trail on it. That is, it serves as a preliminary engineering study of sorts, but not at all as an economic study. However, it is the latter that is required in order to prioritize use of the railroad and its right of way before engineering studies, other than very preliminary and low cost ones, make much sense.
These problems with a very costly study by a high profile public sector organization that is attempting to make recommendations with regard to a very valuable regional asset -- although one that is apparently enormously undervalued by that organization -- could be the result of incompetence on the part of those responsible for the study. However, the report is so fundamentally and consistently flawed that it is not impossible to conclude that it could, in fact, have been purposely designed as a tool to serve narrow political goals under the guise of being an objective work, rather than having been intended as a truly objective analysis with the welfare of the region and its taxpayers as its primary goal.
In conclusion, the PSRC report was and is definitely not suitable for use in making serious decisions about the future of the Eastside railroad. Doing so would be a major disservice both to the Eastside and to the region as a whole. We strongly recommend that before any final decision is made to scrap the railroad, a serious economic analysis be made, one that is both truly objective and conforms to current best practices. Such a study could be done at a relatively modest cost, and the benefits for the region would be enormous.
1The full study is available at http://www.psrc.org/projects/bnsf/reports.htm on the PSRC website. The bulk of the 37 MB document consists of eight appendices, which contain maps, diagrams, a Jurisdictional Interviews Summary, Fact Sheets, an Environmental Assessment Report, an Economic Impact Analysis Report and a Traffic Impacts Analysis Study.
2Formally known as the Woodinville Subdivision, this approximately 42-mile rail line runs from Renton in the south to Snohomish in the north, and includes a branch line from Woodinville to Redmond. It is currently owned and operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), which announced its desire to sell the line in 2003. For a detailed description, see The Eastside Railroad Route, Eastside Rail Now!, March 2007.
3The PSRC's website is http://www.psrc.org.
4HDR Engineering, Inc. is an employee-owned architectural and engineering firm. Its website is http://www.hdrinc.com/.
5This figure was provided by King Cushman during a telephone interview. Cushman was the PSRC's staff project manager for the report.
6BNSF Corridor Preservation Study, PSRC, May 2007, p. 7.
7Ibid., pp. 65-67. The report recommends that all of the track except for the section in Renton and the section from Woodinville north to Snohomish be converted for the "short term" to
1. Regional Multi-purpose trail.King County Executive Ron Sims, who has led the push to scrap the rail line, had originally wanted to remove the segment from Woodinville north to Snohomish as well, according to sources in the City of Snohomish. However, Mr. Sims relented because of particularly vigorous opposition from that city, as well as from shippers along that section of the line. Another factor could have been realization that allowing the temporary retention of that section would reduce opposition to scrapping the rest of the rail line.
The report is very careful to avoid use of the expression scrap the railroad and to not say directly that the rails should be removed. Instead, it says the same thing indirectly (p. 65):
In those segments of the corridor where no freight rail service continues to operate, trail development design and construction should optimize expenditure of public funds in the most cost-effective manner possible, which would typically be to use the reconstructed center rail bed as the foundation for the trail.However, were the PSRC report intended to be truly objective, it would be more appropriate to frequently use terms such scrap the railroad or remove the tracks, as the loss of the tracks rather than the gain of a bicycle trail is, or at least should be, the real issue. That is, the benefits to the region from the construction of another bicycle trail are minuscule when compared with the potential benefits that are lost by the removal of the tracks, as is discussed more fully in subsequent sections.
8See, for example, Building trails, preserving rails, by Julia Patterson, Seattle Times, February 28, 2007. Patterson is the chair of the PSRC's Transportation Policy Board, which was responsible for creation of the PSRC report. The title of the article is misleading, as it is actually advocating scrapping most of the railroad.
9Eastside Rail Now! is a grassroots organization that was formed in early January 2007 by a group of Bellevue residents for the purposes of (a) stopping plans to scrap the Eastside railroad and to replace it with a bicycle trail, (b) promoting use of the railroad as the core of a low-cost and environment-friendly regional commuter rail system and (c) ensuring that the railroad's full 100 foot right of way, not just a narrow corridor, is preserved. Eastside Rail Now's web site is www.eastsiderailnow.org.
10This impression was echoed in informal public opinion surveys about removing the railroad and replacing it by a bicycle trail that were conducted by Eastside Rail Now! at several locations on the Eastside. The most commonly heard comments by interviewees were "It doesn't make any sense" and "Why do they want to do something so dumb?" These surveys also showed an overwhelming desire by those interviewed to keep the railroad intact.
11The Eastside Rail Now! leadership was also concerned about articles by some of those involved in the creation of the PSRC report that were attempting to present its content as fact. An example of the latter is Patterson, Op. Cit. In that article Patterson stated:
The single-track rail is in poor condition and not suitable for passenger service (including diesel multiple units) or increased freight use. Improvements to bring the single track up to standards could total several hundred million dollars or more, an investment inconsistent with our state's long-term freight-capacity needs.This is highly misleading, at best. Several independent surveys by rail experts, including one by Eastside Rail Now!, have shown that the track is in fair to good condition (with the exception of the Redmond branch) and some sections are in excellent condition for a secondary main line. It is definitely sufficient, with minimal modifications, for an initial pilot commuter service operated by DMUs with speeds up to 30 mph. Moreover, the track could be gradually upgraded, as has long been standard railway practice, to allow higher speeds and greater capacity. An eventual expenditure of $200 million for a full-scale upgrading of the approximately 40 miles of track is roughly what Sound Transit is spending for a single mile of its light rail construction. For more about DMUs, see Diesel Multiple Unit, Eastside Rail Now, March 2007.
That article also states that PSRC's advisory committee recommended that: "A trail [should] be constructed between Woodinville and Renton where no freight use exists today." Actually, there are still several freight customers in downtown Bellevue, one of which openly opposed the plan to abandon the line. See Reaction to trail swap spotlights manufacturing's dwindling role on the Eastside, Puget Sound Business Journal, December 1, 2006.
12 Cost-benefit analysis is a long-established (and basically common sense) technique that is used by economists for the evaluation of a wide range of projects. It essentially consists of comparing the total costs of a project with the total benefits. Both costs and benefits include not only easy-to-quantify monetary items but also other items which can be more difficult to measure, including effects on the environment and public health (e.g., traffic accidents, lung disease and climate change). Those projects for which the aggregate costs exceed the aggregate benefits will make society worse off and should thus be rejected. Among those projects for which the benefits exceed the costs, those with the highest benefit to cost ratios should be selected.
13 Least cost planning is a newer methodology that is also regarded as a best practice and is becoming increasingly commonly used. It is based on cost-benefit analysis but moves beyond it. Among those projects for which the benefits exceed the costs, those with the highest benefit to cost ratios are prioritized from least cost to most cost. In this function LCPM also looks at all (or at least a wide range of) possible alternatives on both the supply and demand sides (including demand reduction techniques) and treats them on an equal footing. There is an extensive literature about LCPM, as can be seen from examining any good index of economics journals. For a simple explanation, see A Brief Introduction to Least Cost Planning, Eastside Rail Now!, September 2007.
14When asked why cost-benefit analysis was not used, King Cushman, the PSRC's staff project manager for the report, said: "Because it would be too expensive." This is very misleading. A simple cost-benefit analysis, which would have undoubtedly been far more useful than the PSRC's biased report, could have been performed for much less than the $800,000 that was spent on the report. Another PSRC official told Eastside Rail Now! in a separate conversation that LCPM was not used because "there is no definition for it and nobody knows what it is."
At a very minimum, the report should have explicitly stated the reasons that it did not use cost-benefit analysis or LCPM. However, there is absolutely no mention of these two very important terms in the main body of the report, much less any explanation as to why such essential methodologies might be inappropriate. This is another of the many indications that the study was designed by very incompetent people and/or was crafted to support a particular political outcome rather than to make an objective determination of what would be best for the region. Such behavior is not limited to the PSRC report; unfortunately, it is fairly common for public sector organizations to fail to use cost-benefit analysis or LCPM when they know that the results would be inconsistent with their goals or to suppress such analysis.
Despite its stonewalling, the PSRC is gradually beginning to employ, or at least acknowledge, LCPM, as can be seen in its Destination 2030 regional transportation plan. This is the result of several years of prodding by former state legislator Will Knedlik as well as a growing awareness of the statutory requirements.
15 Specifically, RCW 47.80.030 begins:
Regional transportation plan - Contents, review, use.
Note that the use of LCPM is regarded as being so fundamental to regional transportation planning that it is specified in the very first subsection of the first section of the roughly 600 word RCW 47.80.030, rather than being buried in its middle or tacked on its end as an afterthought.
The Eastside railroad is clearly a very serious candidate for being one of the "most cost-effective facilities" and for providing "[most cost-effective] services" in a transportation plan for the Puget Sound region, as discussed at length in this review. Although the PSRC has used LCPM to some extent in its general regional plans, according to a PSRC official, the transportation component of such plans would be defective unless it also fully and correctly applied LCPM to the Eastside railroad as part of its regional plan. However, such application apparently has not been the case. Perhaps the lack of such application is based on the circular, and obviously erroneous, reasoning that the PSRC report proves that the railroad is not a "cost-effective facilities."
16PSRC, op. cit., p. 14. For example, the report states:
One significant challenge for the "service utility" of this alternative has been commented upon in prior studies, which noted that the existing rail line is not very well located to effectively serve downtown centers such as Bellevue.The statement that "...the existing rail line is not very well located..." is completely contrary to reality, as is explained in detail in subsequent paragraphs of this review.
The PSRC report also says on the same page:
The I-405 Corridor Study Program and EIS (1999-2002) included examination of the commuter rail alternative in substantial depth in this corridor. After 4 to 5 years of a major public investment in intense studies and public involvement, they concluded and approved Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) using exclusive freeway lanes in I-405 with dedicated access ramps to major centers as the most cost-effective public transit solution for the I-405 corridor over at least the next 20 years.But where is the discussion of the methodology of that study and of the changes that have taken place in subsequent years? There is absolutely no discussion, and the reason is that those intense studies are as flawed as the current PSRC report. Also, the so-called public involvement on the Eastside was dominated by a small but vociferous, well-funded and well-connected minority whose main agenda was promoting the construction of another north-south freeway through the Eastside and/or the further widening of I-405.
17PSRC, op. cit., pp. 7, 65.
18Much has changed during the past eight or so years, including:
19Bellevue already has the second largest urban core in the state, and it could eventually become one of the biggest in the western U.S. if present trends continue. Its future growth path is to the east of I-405 because of the large amount of underutilized commercial land in that area and because of zoning and other restrictions on expansion in other directions (i.e., long-established residential neighborhoods that would vigorously oppose encroachment). In the long run, the location of the railroad east of I-405 could be advantageous because of the huge amount of growth that can be expected to take place there. And the launching of a commuter service on the railroad would certainly provide a large additional stimulus for such growth.
A station at the intersection with NE 8th Street would allow train passengers to reach areas throughout the downtown core as well as peripheral areas via a brief shuttle bus ride. There has been much interest in starting a local circulator bus service in downtown, and such a station would be a logical stop for it. In this context, it should be kept in mind that King Street Station, which is used by the Sounder commuter trains in Seattle, is a considerable distance from many destinations in and around downtown Seattle and that many Sounder riders transfer to buses or walk signficant distances to reach those destinations.
There are additional ways of improving access to the existing downtown core west of I-405 that should also be considered for the longer run. One would be to cover a section of the freeway near NE 8th Street with a lid, similar to what has been done over the I-5 freeway in Seattle and elsewhere. This would make walking the relatively short distance between the station and downtown easier and much more pleasant, as well as provide other benefits (e.g., a nice park, more building space, reduced noise and improved aesthetics).
20There are additional locations along the line that also have potential for stations that would lead to high density development nearby and/or would be convenient for feeder bus service. One example is near I-90 and Factoria. It would also be practical to provide regular or special occasion service to the winery district in Woodinville. Moreover, there are several potential branch lines whose construction would further add to the railroad's usefulness. For more about such branch lines, see Possible Future Extensions for the Eastside Railroad, Eastside Rail Now!, September 2007.
21This is confirmed by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). See, for example, I-405 - Renton To Bellevue Project SR 169 to I-90 in the WSDOT Projects section of the WSDOT web site.
22Although there is currently a track connection between the Eastside railroad and the BNSF main line west of Renton, it curves to the north, so that trains coming from the Eastside railroad would have to reverse direction after entering the main line in order to head south towards Tacoma.
23Sound Transit stated in March 2007 on its web page Sound Transit wins Federal Transit Administration award for ingenuity in attracting more riders that: "Last year the Sounder north route carried 170,691 riders on its Monday-Friday runs." This amounts to only about 657 riders per weekday. The dinner train, despite its much smaller capacity, carried in excess of 1.3 million passengers during its 15 years of operation on the Eastside railroad, or about 87,000 per year.
24If a railroad has been out of use for some time, it could be much more difficult to start a transit service on it than if it were still in operation. A major reason for this is the fact that the infrastructure (e.g., roadbed and crossing signals) tends to deteriorate if it is not maintained. Other reasons are that there would likely be time-consuming and expensive permitting requirements (e.g., for restoring road crossings) that would not otherwise be necessary and costly lawsuits from nearby property owners.
25A figure of $103 million for the roughly 42-mile line has been been mentioned in the media a number of times. Although substantially higher than the typical sale price for railroad branch lines on a per mile basis, it is extremely small compared to the cost of constructing a brand new rail line in the Seattle area.
26The track is currently rated at a maximum speed of 30 mph for passenger trains and 25 mph for freight trains (FRA Class 2). While certainly not rapid transit speed, this is faster than traffic often flows on the parallel I-405 and is sufficient for an initial pilot service.
27This is comparable to the estimate in the PSRC report and is based on the costs of upgrading railroads elsewhere. The actual figure could be substantially lower, in part because of the upgrading of some sections of track that has taken place recently, such as north of downtown Woodinville (e.g., installation of continuous welded rail and new road crossings). Moreover, it should be kept in mind that such an expenditure could be made gradually, for example by just upgrading ten or 20 percent of the track per year, starting with the worst sections.
28The cost per mile for Sound Transit's initial 15.6 mile light rail line from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac International Airport is roughly roughly $173 million per mile (exclusive of the cost of the downtown transit tunnel). And Sound Transit's current projections call for an expenditure of at least $325 million per mile for the 11-mile section of East Link line between Seattle and Bellevue.
29There are more than 20 grade crossings on Sound Transit's new light rail line between downtown and the airport, including 18 in the Raineer Valley and several just south of downtown. For a more detailed look at the issue of grade crossings on the Eastside railroad, see The Eastside Railroad and Grade Crossings, Eastside Rail Now!, October 2, 2007.
30The problems of I-405 are discussed in detail in The Great I-405 Boondoggle, Eastside Rail Now!, January 2007.
31For more about how utilizing the Eastside railroad could help combat global warming, see How Rail Transit on the Eastside Can Help Fight Climate Change, Eastside Rail Now!, March 2007.
32Virtually every major high tech and high income region in the U.S. has commuter rail except the Eastside. This includes not only Chicago but also New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and others. Even Austin, the high tech center of Texas, is preparing to launch a commuter rail service. Commuter rail is considered an important factor in determining the quality of life and thus in making decisions regarding location for businesses and talented individuals. The Eastside has not implemented commuter rail so far largely because it has been smaller than other major high tech and high income areas and because it has been so outstanding in other ways. However, the situation is changing rapidly as population and economic activity continue to grow and as traffic congestion and air pollution intensify.
33The dinner train was forced to cease operations on the Eastside railroad on July 31 because BNSF, the current owner of the railroad, refused to renew its lease. The reason for this refusal is the plan to remove all traffic from the section between North Renton and Woodinville in order to facilitate removal of the tracks. For more about the dinner train, see Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, Eastside Rail Now!, August 2007.
34There are in excess of 175 miles of trails in King County, according to the County's website, which is more than almost any other metropolitan area in the U.S. For more about the trails that already exist parallel to sections of the Eastside railroad, see The Strange Case of the Already Existing Trails, Eastside Rail Now!, July 22, 2007.
In contrast, there are zero miles of commuter rail on the Eastside. Were the railroad to be scrapped, the total number of miles of bicycle trails in the county would soar to more than 200 (not counting the proposed section in Snohomish County), but there would still be zero miles of commuter railroad on the Eastside until sometime after the year 2027, if ever!
35However, this does not tell the whole story. For example, the report fails to mention that fears that the line would be scrapped may have played a role in causing the decline in freight shipments. It has long been the case that the expectation that a rail line might eventually be scrapped will induce shippers to make long range plans to move their businesses to new locations. All that may be necessary to cause such expectation is the loss of just a few shippers, or of one major shipper, along a line. Railroads have often used this to their advantage when attempting to obtain government permission to abandon a branch line by informing (or hinting to) shippers years before abandonment proceedings that the line is endangered. Also overlooked by the report is that it is frequently the case that when branch lines with dwindling freight traffic are sold off by large railroads to small companies to operate independently, the new operators are able to reverse the downward spiral and attain substantial increases in freight shipments by improving service, lowering costs and aggressively marketing the service.
36U.S. oil production peaked around 1970 at close to 10 million barrels per day, as had earlier been predicted, and it has been generally declining ever since, reaching about five million barrels daily in 2005. Output in Mexico, the third largest source of oil imports for the U.S., has also peaked and, in fact, Mexico may lose all of its ability to export oil in just a few years due to the rapid decline of its Cantarell oil field, the second largest ever discovered, from aggressive drilling and consequent damage to its geologic structure. Moreover, there are reports that Saudi Arabia's Ghawar oil field, the world's largest, has passed its peak production. There have been few new discoveries of significance in recent years, despite intensive exploration, and at the same time worldwide demand has continued to rise, most notably from China and India. The article The oil supply tsunami alert by Kjell Aleklett, professor in physics at Uppsala University, summarized it well:
Fifty years ago the world was consuming 4 billion barrels of oil per year and the average discovery was around 30 billion. Today we consume 30 billion barrels per year and the discovery rate is now approaching 4 billion barrels of crude oil per year.Although there is a large amount of oil available in tar sands and oil shale, particularly in Canada and the U.S., it is very costly to extract, both in monetary terms and in terms of damage to the environment.
37For example, much of the truck traffic on I-405 is probably long distance traffic, as is typical for freeways. Long distance truck traffic is often relatively economical to convert to containerized rail traffic because the cost of transferring the containers to and from rail cars can be spread over more miles.
38PSRC, Op. Cit., p. 64.
39For a closer look at the potential role of the railroad in enhancing regional security, see Homeland Security and The Eastside Railroad, Eastside Rail Now!, September 2007.
40Despite the emphasis that the authors of the report appear to place on the question of whether the corridor should be preserved, they devote extremely little space in their massive report to explaining why it is so important to preserve it.
41There has been growing recognition among environmental researchers in recent years that the maintenance or provision of corridors for wildlife movement, rather than just preserving isolated areas of habitat, plays an important role in the health and sustainability of wildlife populations. This applies not only to connecting large wilderness areas but also to linking smaller areas of habitat in urban areas, and it applies just as much to individual animals or small groups as it does to large herds or packs. For more about the importance of wildlife corridors, see For Wildlife, Migration Is Endangered Too, New York Times, March 9, 2004.
42Despite the supposed guarantees of the Rails to Trails Act, there is typically intense opposition from some nearby property owners to the reinstallation of removed track. In fact, there are extremely few, if any, instances of successful attempts to reinstall track that was replaced by a trail under the Act.
43Apparently a number of people who keep repeating that they are strongly in favor of preserving the corridor in fact do not want to ever again used for a railroad. For example, Cushman told Eastside Rail Now! that he does not think it would ever be appropriate to use the Eastside railroad right of way for transit, despite the fact that he was advocating that it be railbanked under the Rails to Trails Act. He instead proposes an elevated transit route over the I-405 freeway that would cost several hundred million dollars per mile. Cushman also admitted that it is extremely difficult to convert a trail back into a railroad despite the supposed guarantees of the Rails to Trails Act.
44See the Board of Directors page on the Cascade Bicycle Club web site. An analogy could be made to the conflict of interest that would arise from putting a director of an automobile manufacturer in charge of a study of air pollution or a director of a construction company in charge of a study of open spaces adjacent to urban areas.
45This should in no way be interpreted as a criticism of bicycles or bicycle riders. In fact, bicycles and trains are not only very compatible, but they are also highly complementary. For example, well designed rail systems make it easy for bicycle riders to complete part of their journey by bringing their bicycles aboard trains by such means as having station platforms level with the rail car floors and providing special locations near the doors for bicycles. Such systems also provide bicycle rental services at train stations, as is common in parts of Europe. Any transit service on the Eastside railroad should likewise be designed to accommodate bicycle riders to the extent practical as a means of reducing fossil fuel consumption, promoting public health and maximizing consumer choice. It should also be mentioned that a number of Eastside Rail Now! members are enthusiastic bicycle riders.
46This is not necessarily meant to be a criticism of Cushman, who is quite articulate and has had many years of experience in the regional planning field. But it is a certainly a criticism of PSRC officials who should have exercised better judgement in selecting him and in overseeing this very costly report.
47PSRC, Op. Cit., p. 61. The report attempts to explain this finding with the following statement:
Medium and Long-Term: Continue regional trail use and initiate (during the medium-term 11-20 year period) reconsideration of potential technical need and financial feasibility of passenger rail options in this corridor (commuter rail or high capacity transit/HCT, though most compatible for HCT). Based on current experience with corridor planning, assume future planning, environmental analysis and potential recommendations to move to design and construction for future HCT project in all or some portion of this corridor could take as long as 8 to 10 years, thus the recommendation to initiate analysis in medium-term period if anticipating potential implementation in post-20 year long-term period.
The phrase "...potential technical need and financial feasibility of passenger rail options in this corridor..." is an example of the sloppy logic of the report disguised with impressive sounding buzzwords. "Technical need" apparently means what economists (and others) refer to as demand. That there is already a strong potential demand for rail transit in this most congested corridor in the entire state has been discussed elsewhere in this review. Commuter rail on the Eastside railroad could have much more "financial feasibility" (i.e., cost much less per route mile or passenger mile while generating comparable or greater revenue) than other rail lines in the region, as is likewise discussed elsewhere in this review.
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This page created November 13, 2007. Last updated November 17, 2007.
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