Blog Visitors From Sonoma-Marin Stress Commuter Rail’s Possibilities

As part of our recent Cascadia Rail Week, Cascadia Center hosted a gathering at Novelty Hill Winery In Redmond, where officials from the Sonoma-Marin commuter rail line recently approved by voters discussed their plans with supporters of Puget Sound’s Eastside commuter rail initiative, which would use parts, and eventually all, of the BNSF’s underutilized Snohomish-to-Renton corridor. In today’s Seattle Times, editorial page columnist Lance Dickie, who attended the session, writes:

Connections between where people live and work are the essence of public transit. The 42-mile Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail corridor between the cities of Snohomish and Renton — including a spur from Woodinville to Redmond — is ripe with potential. Or so it seemed in 2007, when the Port of Seattle said it would buy the line for $107 million and issue bonds to raise the cash. In March, the Port announced the sale was postponed because the nation’s credit markets were frozen. In the absence of a financial thaw, the Port has not said what comes next. The lingering question of who will buy and preserve the right of way along the corridor splashes cold water on the excitement about a rail-and-trail combination between growing Eastside population centers.
In late May, the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center hosted state and federal lawmakers, mayors, and state and local transportation officials at meetings in Portland and Seattle to learn more about high-speed rail from Oregon’s Willamette Valley to the Canadian border. They were also looking at how freight lines have been converted to multiple-use corridors that accommodate walkers, cyclists, commuter rail and freight. Portland’s metropolitan transportation agency, Tri-Met, recently opened the Westside Express Service, 14.7 miles of rail and five stations.
Cascadia’s template for the Eastside rail corridor might well be the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District, which is installing passenger rail service and a 12-foot-wide path for pedestrians and cyclists along 70 miles of Northwestern Pacific Railroad right of way. John Nemeth, SMART’s rail planning manager, spoke to a dinner gathering at Novelty Hill Winery in Woodinville. The setting was convivial, but the tourism potential of regional rail service is not lost on the local wine industry or the mayors from Bellingham, Leavenworth and Woodinville.
In California, from Cloverdale on the north to Larkspur on the south, the emphasis might appear to be on getting to a ferry connection to San Francisco. Instead, Nemeth said, commute patterns are changing to focus on population and job centers within the two counties. SMART is fueled by a quarter-cent sales tax passed in 2008 with 70-percent approval. Service begins in 2014.

According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, SMART does face some financial challenges resulting from a downturn in expected sales tax revenues and changes in the bond market. The line’s opening may be delayed slightly, or perhaps built to slightly less than the full 70-mile length at the outset. Many public transit systems, current and planned, face similar challenges at present. The solutions will lie jointly in an upturn in the economy, finding new ways to economize, and in some cases, developing ancillary funding tools.
For more on Cascadia Rail Week, read this informative summary posted earlier here at our blog by my colleague Mike Wussow. There’s also this link-rich news coverage summary.