City councilman eyes rail preservation
May 7, 2008
By Jim Feehan
Steve Buri is leading the charge to preserve a 42-mile stretch of Burlington Northern Santa Fe line as a commuter rail service to the Eastside. The right of way, as wide as 100 feet in some sections, could also accommodate a trail, said Buri, a city councilman.
“The corridor, running from Renton to Snohomish, is an existing right of way,” he said. “As such, it represents a cost-effective way to bring commuter rail service to the Eastside.”
Earlier this year, Buri drafted a letter to Paula Hammond, head of the state Department of Transportation, urging her to recognize the importance of preserving the rail connection for the future benefit of the region.
The trail component could safely coexist with the rail line, as well as enhance recreational opportunities for Newcastle residents, Buri said in his letter.
The rail line could also serve as another transit option for city residents.
“A future station at the 112th Street/Newcastle exit off I-405 could connect residents to points north and south,” Buri said in an interview. “Most importantly, long-term consideration is being given to rail and shuttle connections to the Sounder regional rail system in Tukwila, to the Bellevue Transit Center and possibly to the airport.”
Buri said a diesel multiple unit could be used on the line. A diesel multiple unit is a railroad passenger vehicle powered by a built-in diesel engine. DMUs can be operated singularly, or with any number of units coupled together.
Buri is not alone in advocating for the preservation of the Eastside railroad that runs parallel to Interstate 405 from Renton to Kirkland.
Eastside Rail Now, an organization formed in 2007 by about a dozen Bellevue residents, is opposed to King County Executive Ron Sims’ plan to scrap the Eastside railroad and replace it with a trail. The group is lead by Will Knedlik, a former state legislator from Kirkland.
The removal of 4,200 feet of track near the Wilburton Tunnel in Bellevue is not a huge setback, because Cascadia Institute discovered 12-lane wide bridges in Texas and Ohio that could span the affected area for $8 million.
The existing track would not need a major upgrade, because it was recently certified for freight by the Washington Department of Transportation. Necessary upgrades could be done for $35 million. New light rail would cost $150 million per mile, while fixing the existing BNSF line would run a modest $2 million per mile, Knedlik said.
The Eastside rail line could also be used to haul freight, which would alleviate some of the traffic through downtown Seattle, he said.
Eastside Rail Now is proposing Sound Transit spend $10 million for a three-year pilot project to test the Eastside rail service from Renton to Snohomish. That $10 million is a pittance compared to the $500 million Sound Transit collects from Eastside communities, Knedlik said.
Studies show that where even a small fee is charged for a public service into which millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested, people will chose a lower cost option. When Metro turned over routes to Sound Transit and fares went up, ridership dropped off.
“Only when it’s free does public transportation meet its ridership goals,” Knedlik said.
Buri said a commuter rail is financially feasible, because the right of way already exists and a system could be built for less than light rail.
“One study estimated the cost of upgrading the rail line at less than $50 million. Add bio-diesel rail cars, stations, sidings (areas where trains can pass one another) and shuttle service and you can have a complete system for around $150 to $200 million,” he said. “A similar 32-mile system in Austin, Texas, was recently completed for under $100 million, and that cost included everything. That makes financial sense – not only for Newcastle, but for all Eastside residents.”
Susan Beverly, of Newcastle, said the success of Sound Transit’s Sounder has proven that people will use local rail transport.
“Starting regular service as soon as possible is the best way to prove that there is a ready market for a north-south rail connection on the Eastside,” she said. “If the tracks get torn out now to build a trail system, it will be decades before we get real rapid transit on the Eastside, and the cost then will be horrendous.”