Blog “Get On Board With Eastside Commuter Rail”

“Get on board with Eastside commuter rail,” urges the Everett Herald in a Sunday editorial following two community forums on the policy initiative last week, in which Cascadia Center previewed a new 501c4 non-profit – the Eastside TRailway Partnership – to raise public and private funds for a pilot route between Snohomish and Bellevue on old Burlington Northern and Sante Fe tracks to be purchased by the Port of Seattle. The Herald:

Imagine relatively small, quiet, fuel-efficient trains carrying thousands of commuters and tourists between Snohomish and Bellevue, and perhaps farther south, each weekday — running every hour or even half-hour on tracks that already exist. Imagine a comfortable, scenic rail commute that includes seamless connections to buses to get you right where you need to go. Then imagine a bicycle/pedestrian trail safely using the same corridor, potentially connecting Snohomish County’s Centennial Trail with King County’s extensive trail system.
It’s not a dream, it’s a real possibility….First, the Port of Seattle must complete its planned purchase of the 42-mile Burlington Northern Santa Fe corridor. The port…should follow through with this visionary investment.
In the meantime, local leaders should get behind this eminently sensible idea and quickly identify funding sources. The nonprofit Cascadia Center, which is pushing the rail and trail idea, estimates that between $100 million and $250 million will be needed to get the line going — a bargain compared with other projects. Cascadia’s (Director) Bruce Agnew, a former Snohomish County Council member, says much of that could come from private investors who could put in amenities along the route.

After the first Eastside TRailways Partnership forum held last week in Kirkland (Seattle Times article here), Agnew spoke at length with KIRO 710’s Dave Ross. Agnew said:

We’re talking about a mixture of public and private financing. We’d like to see the track rehabilitated by public agencies like Sound Transit, Metro and Community Transit, since it extends up into Snohomish County. But the stations and the trail development and some of the other track work like sidings could be paid for by private developers in nodes around stations where they want to put in…software parks or housing. For instance, Metro has a plan for housing that goes around the South Kirkland park-and-ride lots, similar to what was done with the streetcar in Seattle.

Getting the old tracks up to snuff for commuter rail is eminently do-able. A Cascadia Center report by retired BNSF Northwest Director of Operations Read Fay emphasized the modest costs for rehabilitation of the tracks to accomodate trains at 40 miles per hour. Part of the proposal is to use smart trains. Cascadia has also stressed the preferability of Diesel Motor Unit double-decker coaches on the envisioned route, which can burn biodiesel and carry bicycles. They require no locomotive and can pull two more cars of the same type. (Above left is a DMU unit to be used in the San Diego region on the North County Transit District’s “Sprinter” route between Escondido and Oceanside. Service is scheduled to begin in several weeks). As Agnew noted on the Dave Ross Show, so-callled DMUs are:

….extremely quiet, it’s basically not louder than a bus, instead of the traditional commuter rail, which has a loud locomotive and a bunch of train sets following it….the vision is a quiet train operating once a half hour or maybe an hour, and a good trail system with small stations that are community oriented, lots of stops. We could see at South Kirkland park-and-ride a transfer to bus rapid transit at an expanded park-and-ride on (State Route) 520….

Using double-decker DMU coaches, the passenger capacity of a two-car train would be almost 400, compared to just 200, Agnew noted, on the West Coast Amtrak run which includes Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Artist J. Craig Thorpe’s preliminary sketches of Eastside commuter rail station designs – done for Cascadia Center – are here.
The next step, as the Everett Herald noted, is for the Port to complete its purchase of the BNSF line. In a post-event recap, Cascadia Center provides names and e-mail addresses of key Port officials that the public may wish to contact regarding the proposed deal.
It’s important to note that not only does the Port of Seattle deserve credit for deciding to keep the valuable rail and trail corridor protected in public ownership, so too does King County, which in recent months has engaged in sometimes-complicated negotiations focused on buying some or all of the property from the Port and perhaps ripping out all the rails to focus solely on trail construction. In a Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed published yesterday, County Council Members Larry Phillips and Bob Ferguson affirm the Council’s formal support of a dual use approach which leaves the rails intact and includes their use for transit.
The county will quite understandably proceed with its own public process in part because it wants to encourage regional agencies to deliberate together on possible rail operations, and partly because the county retains an option to purchase from the Port the seven-mile-long Woodinville-Redmond spur, and track south from the Wilburton Trestle in Bellevue, to the end of the line in Renton.
Meanwhile, a March public meeting in Bellevue is being tentatively planned, at which board members of the Eastside TRailways Partnership would meet formally for the first time. Priorities will include advancing the dialog on joint public-private financing of the Snohomish to Bellevue pilot project; plus balancing needs of trail and rail users; and seeking additional community input. Stay tuned.
UPDATE, 1/28/08: Additional press coverage on Cascadia’s push for Eastside commuter rail comes via the Everett Herald news staff; plus Seattle Times opinionator Lance Dickie, and the Kirkland Courier-Reporter.