Put brakes on rail-to-trail plan, some say

08:30 AM PDT on Tuesday, May 17, 2005

By Natalie Singer / The Seattle Times
The Spirit of Washington dinner train crosses the Wilburton trestle in Bellevue on its way to Woodinville. Under a proposal by King County, the railway would become a recreational path.

King County, WA - King County's plan to turn 47 miles of Eastside and Snohomish County train tracks into a trail came as welcome news Monday to some in the region but brought protests from supporters of the Spirit of Washington dinner train, which now uses the rails.

And some local officials said that while they support public ownership of the route, they wanted to know more about its costs, eventual use and how that would impact their cities.

Several dozen dinner-train employees marched into a news conference at Renton's Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park, where the trail route would begin, carrying "Save the Train" signs and shouting in protest over King County Executive Ron Sims' formal announcement Monday.

The county has entered into exclusive negotiations with BNSF Railway to buy the right of way for the

100-foot-wide route, which stretches from Renton to the city of Snohomish and now carries some freight as well as the dinner train.

If converted to a trail, it would become a major link in the county's recreation system, tying into other trails and one day possibly extending from South King County to Skagit County.

But the negotiations could bring an end to the dinner train's popular sightseeing trips.

"It's unacceptable," said Eric Temple, president of the dinner train, who said he'd known of the railway's interest in selling the line but was surprised by the county's recent negotiations.

Basically they're just saying "thanks for the memories. But I want to keep running the train. There's plenty of room for a trail, too," Temple said.

The train, which has about 80 full-time employees, has calculated its economic impact as $140 million over the past 13 years. It operates on a lease agreement with BNSF Railway; Temple said there are a couple years left on the current contract.

Because the county would acquire the line through a federal "railbanking program" that allows the conversion of rails into trails while preserving potential transportation uses, Sims has said that one day a trail and another use could co-exist.

But he would not promise to keep the dinner train running indefinitely, saying it was too early to discuss plans for the route beyond a trail.

"It will be a trail first. The other uses will always be a complement," Sims said.

Dinner-train employees asked yesterday why the train would have to shut down at all.

"They should keep both," said Nicole Greer, a server. "They're flushing $140 million down the drain."

"It's not just tourists who ride it," said Rich Keeling, lead mechanic. "A lot of locals love the train. People who appreciate taking their wife [somewhere special] for their anniversary, for example."

There's no timeline yet for developing a trail, and the county still hasn't determined what materials would be used or what types of recreation — such as bicycling or horseback riding — would be allowed. The county's exclusive right to negotiate with the railway lasts until August.

Supporters of the trail concept argue that if the county doesn't move quickly to buy the land, the railway will sell it off piecemeal to private developers.

"If we don't buy it, we'll all lose it," said Chuck Ayers, executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club.

Mark Funk, spokesman for Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, said yesterday that the county still was looking into the impact a King County-owned trail could have. If built, the trail would end where Snohomish County's Centennial Trail begins in the city of Snohomish. Eventually, that trail will stretch into Skagit County.

Sims wouldn't estimate how much the 47-mile route would cost, though he said the county has identified funding and that new taxes would not be involved.

"If Ron Sims can do this without increasing taxes, hallelujah," said Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives.

Acquisition of the line was explored several years ago as part of the Interstate 405 corridor project, and preliminary estimates for the cost of the line were $300 million. Sims said yesterday, however, that the price would likely be lower in a railbanking deal than in a typical purchase agreement.

"This is a county that can't afford to maintain its parks," said Renton Mayor Kathy Keolker-Wheeler, who also was worried about the dinner train's fate. "So I just don't get it — where is this money going to come from?"

"We're going to see how it plays into our (tourism and transportation) plans," said Woodinville Mayor Don Brocha. He said that while the dinner train, which stops at Woodinville's Columbia Winery, would be missed, a trail could also attract visitors to the city.

Brocha echoed others' opinions about rail versus trail: "The best would be both."

Before King County began pursuing the acquisition, the Puget Sound Regional Council had outlined a $800,000 study of the corridor and its potential uses. That study will begin soon, said King Cushman, regional strategy adviser.

In preliminary discussions last year, Cushman said that cities along the line all liked the idea of a trail.

"The opinions begin to differ on what the other uses might be," he said.



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