Agreement brings rail corridor into public ownership

Regional stakeholders gathered in front of the Wilburton trestle at the Bellevue Fire Station Monday morning to sign a historic agreement that will bring the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Rail Corridor into public ownership.

Regional stakeholders gathered in front of the Wilburton trestle at the Bellevue Fire Station Monday morning to sign a historic agreement that will bring the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Rail Corridor into public ownership.

The agreement, which caps three years of debate, was unanimously approved last week by the King County Council and earlier Monday morning by the Port of Seattle Commission during a special meeting at Bellevue City Hall. Under the agreement, the Port will pay the below-market price of $107 million to BNSF Railway to acquire the 42-mile Eastside Rail Corridor that runs from the north end of Renton to Snohomish and passes through Renton, Bellevue, Newcastle, Kirkland and Woodinville. King County will pay the port $1.9 million for a 26-mile easement that runs from Renton to Woodinville, including the “Redmond Spur” segment.

The port and county agreed the existing railroad tracks will remain in place while the public weighs in on the best use for the corridor, including the location and size of a public trail to run alongside the rail line.

“We’re finally seeing a light at the end of the railroad tunnel,” said Port Commission President John Creighton during the ceremony.

The acquisition process began in 2003 when BNSF announced that it would sell the corridor. Worried that the corridor would be sold piecemeal, county officials acted in partnership with the port to ensure the rail line would not be broken up and sold for private development.

While the original proposal in 2005 called for the county to trade ownership of King County International Airport (Boeing Field) and the Fisher flour mill property in exchange for the corridor, officials worked closely to partner on the new agreement that Port CEO Tay Yoshitani hailed as one of the nation’s largest public right-of-way purchases.

“This is a priceless opportunity,” Creighton said. “Without the port’s involvement, this corridor would likely have been parceled out to private developers, fragmented and lost to the public forever.”

Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger said the agreement is not only a great opportunity for Bellevue, but the entire region.

“Here is an almost 100-year-old trestle that’s provided transportation around here long before we had a lot of cars,” Degginger said, looking out at the Wilburton trestle. “Now it’s providing an opportunity to look at how we can solve one of the biggest problems on the Eastside - transportation.”

According to King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, future uses of the corridor could include high-capacity transit, such as light rail, and a trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“I feel certain that it will happen someday,” Patterson said. “That means we’ll have one of the most extensive and exciting trail systems in the entire country.”

County Executive Ron Sims said stakeholders have “been in the hot seat,” but in the end have preserved a “critical transportation corridor.”

Under the legislation King County Council adopted last week, officials will develop a regional process to plan and recommend appropriate uses of the corridor.

Over the next two months, the council and port will decide how to engage a public process, for adoption by council ordinance by July 15.

The acquisition sale is set to be closed by the end of this year, after which the county and port have 18 months to determine where the trail should go.

Carrie Wood can be reached at cwood@reporternewspapers.com or 425-453-4290.