July 5, 2008
A number of people have contacted us recently to find out what's happening in the long-running battle to save and effectively utilize the Eastside railroad and what can be expected in the coming weeks. There has been little news in the mainstream media for some time, and thus it may appear that not much has been happening. In reality, however, this is an exciting time for those of us who are genuinely concerned about the future of the railroad, and thus about the future of our region as a whole. For example:
(1) Although the Port of Seattle cannot really do much until the Surface Transportation Board (STB) approves the sale (expected for late this year) and thus the deal finally closes, it has been proceeding with a preliminary "public process" regarding the future of the railroad. While some parties are not fully satisfied with the way the meetings have gone -- not due to any bad intentions on the part of the Port -- this still represents a huge improvement over the earlier effort to scrap the railroad as quickly as possible and without any attempt at public input.
(2) A public opinion survey commissioned by Sound Transit found -- likely much to its shock -- that starting a demonstration commuter rail service on the Eastside railroad ranks as one of the most desired rail transit projects. Moreover, this popularity is not just confined to the Eastside, but rather it extends to the other parts of the three-county region as well, including Snohomish and Pierce Counties, where much of the Eastside's growing workforce must live because of the far lower cost of housing. (See ST2 Update, First Quarter 2008 Public Involvement, pp. 20-25, Sound Transit, March 13, 2008.)
(3) The Washington State Legislature has allocated $100,000 for a new study of commuter rail on the Eastside railroad, and Sound Transit is contributing another $200,000. This comes in the wake of Eastside Rail Now's public disclosure that the Puget Sound Regional Council's (PSRC) $800,000 "study" of the railroad was severely flawed and thus not suitable for use in making objective decisions about the future of the railroad. The new study will be conducted jointly by the PSRC and Sound Transit.
(4) The Sound Transit board is moving closer to a very difficult decision as to whether it will place a transit measure on the ballot this November. Should it decide to defer the ballot measure, this would put more pressure on the board to start spending money on the Eastside railroad (in large part because of the legally mandated "sub-area equity"). And should the measure be placed on the ballot but be rejected by the voters, this would also be great for the railroad (and, we believe, for rail transit in the region as a whole), just as the rejection of Proposition 1 last November was.
(5) It is increasingly looking like activist Tim Eyman's traffic initiative will appear on the November ballot. This measure would open the HOV lanes to general traffic for most of the day. One consequence would be to severely affect the speed, reliability and operating cost of the so-called "bus rapid transit" that the powers-to-be have decided that we should have in the I-405 corridor instead of rail. Thus, this could clearly work in favor of starting commuter service on the existing railroad.
(6) Efforts are being started to get the Legislature to provide funding for a bridge to allow restoration of the section of track that was removed earlier this year at Wilburton Tunnel in conjunction with the widening of the I-405 freeway.
(7) Eastside Rail Now's recent proposals for (a) a sensible regional rail transit plan, (b) downtown Bellevue's Grand Esplanade and (c) a rail extension to the UB/Bothell are generating a great deal of interest. And they are helping to open people's eyes to the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that creative use of the railroad would provide for enhancing our region and helping solve some of its most pressing problems.
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