Urgent action is needed to save our valuable Eastside Railroad (which runs from Renton through Bellevue to Snohomish) for use as the core of a modern, environmentally-friendly, multi-purpose transportation system. Partial dismantlement could begin as early as the second half of this year!
The most immediate threat is the proposed severing of the line just south of downtown Bellevue later this year by WSDOT (Washington State Department of Transportation) in conjunction with the widening of the parallel I-405 freeway.
Most people on the Eastside are not yet aware of the threat. But it is real. And it could mean the end of the dream of a swift, low-cost, low-emissions rail transit system that could benefit the Eastside for generations and be a model to be emulated around the world.
The official reason given for severing the line in Bellevue is that it could save 20 to 30 million dollars by eliminating the need for widening the existing freeway tunnel (Wilburton Tunnel) under the railroad in conjunction with the planned widening of the freeway and instead allow the tunnel to be replaced by a much less expensive open cut. However, this supposed savings is likely a great exaggeration and, in fact, the total long-term cost to the region would be far larger than any short-term savings in construction costs.1
Even if the severing of the line were to be only temporary (i.e., a matter of months or years while the freeway is being widened), it would still have severe repercussions. Most immediately, it would mean that the Spirit of Washington dinner train, which is based in Renton and makes one or two round trips daily to Woodinville, would no longer be able to operate on that route. In such case, the train would have to be discontinued or its base of operations would have to be relocated at considerable expense; this would represent a substantial loss of economic benefits to the community.
The owner of the dinner train has been one of the strongest supporters of keeping the Eastside Railroad intact. In fact, he has even offered to operate the line, including the existing freight service, and pay the County rent from the profits, should the County acquire the line.
Once the dinner train is gone, there would be less political pressure to stop the dismantling of the section of the line between Bellevue and Renton. There are no freight customers located on that section, although it used for hauling freight to customers elsewhere on the line, and those customers, including Boeing, could be serviced from either end (although it would be less convenient and likely more costly).
King County Executive Ron Sims has stated that he wants to acquire the entire line from its current owner and operator, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, in order "preserve the right of way for possible future transit use." But he has also stated that he intends to remove most of the track and replace it with a bicycle trail.
This is exactly what the County did several years ago when it acquired the intact rail line that ran along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish between Redmond and Issequah. Upon acquisition, it moved quickly to rip out the rails without considering their value for transit use between the two rapidly growing cities and despite vehement protests from a number of property owners along the route.2
King County officials claim that they will provide strong guarantees that the right of way will be kept available for transit use at some unspecified future date. However, experience around the country has demonstrated again and again that once an operating railroad has been dismantled, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, both politically and economically, to reinstall it.
Moreover, it is apparent that King County does not want the right of way to be used for rail transit for at least several decades, if ever. This is because it has completely ignored the obvious solution of starting transit service on the existing tracks3 (in sharp contrast to what many other U.S. cities have been doing) and has instead been supporting Sound Transit's costly and highly controversial plan to bring light rail to the Eastside via the I-90 floating bridge. If it is ever built, that line would not be operable until the year 2027 at the earliest, according to Sound Transit.
Retention of the railroad, however, would allow the start of a low cost rail transit service on the Eastside in as little as two years using modern DMU (diesel multiple unit) trains. And its route (i.e., the I-405 corridor) is a much more useful one than the I-90 route, because of the larger number of trips and greater congestion. Removing of the rails would kill the very practical possibility of starting a transit service on the line within a year or two. It would represent a major, and completely avoidable, loss for this region as a whole.
Fortunately, it is still not too late to stop this shortsighted plan to rip out the tracks. One of the most important things that can be done to save our railroad and the tremendous potential that it provides for the Eastside is to contact relevant officials at all levels of government (city, county, state and federal) and let them know how we feel about this issue.
For more information about what you can do, please see the page How to Help Eastside Rail Now!.
2Ironically, Issequah is now trying to raise funds to reinstall a section of the track from its downtown to the southern tip of Lake Sammamish in order to extend its trolley service!
3Among the various reasons that some King County officials give for not wanting to start a transit service on the existing railroad are that "the tracks are in bad condition," there is already an express bus service on the parallel I-405 freeway and that Sound Transit already has a plan for bringing rail transit to the Eastside. However, on closer examination, none of these reasons make any sense. Specifically, the track is actually in quite good condition, according to independent analysts, and any minor problems are relatively easy to repair. The bus service is sparsely used except during peak periods because of traffic congestion and the fact that most people do not like to ride busses. However, it has been shown in city after city that the start of rail transit service can attract numerous passengers who formerly drove. Also, although it is true that Sound Transit has a plan for brining rail transit to the Eastside, that line would not be ready for at least two decades.
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This page created January 14, 2007. Last updated March 5, 2007.
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