Ron Sims' Interview on KUOW

Below are selected comments made by King County Executive Ron Sims about the Eastside railroad during his interview by host Steve Scher on KUOW's Weekday program on December 20, 2007.1

In the context of a discussion about the length of the line, the Executive said:

All I know is that we will control everything from a, City of Sammamish all the way down to Renton.
This is a serious error. The Port has given no indication that it will let the Executive get control of any segment of the railroad, which actually runs from the City of Snohomish to Renton, not from Sammamish to Renton.2

The Executive responded to a question by Scher about the two segments of the railroad that he wants to purchase from the Port:

They would be south of I-90 down to Coulon Park in Renton, and the other one would be off the trail to Redmond. We call it the Redmond spur. Those two just don't have the, you just can't make those dual use, it's literally impossible, and so those would be exclusively bike trails. And then from the main segment, which would be from Woodinville down to Bellevue, would be, they will be called the dual use, you know, how to put a trail in at the same time preserve future capacity for another transportation use.
The Executive is not consistent in his use of the nice-sounding term "dual use." He has often used it to mean the combination of (a) removing the tracks as quickly as possible, (b) replacing them by a bicycle trail and (c) making vague promises that the right of way could again be used for some other transportation purpose at some unspecified time in the distant future. Another problem with this term is that it omits other potential uses of the ample railroad right of way concurrent with its railroad functions, including for a linear nature preserve and for a pedestrian-friendly trail. This is just one of numerous examples of how the Executive remains obsessed with bicycle trails above all else.

The Executive then said the following in a discussion of his vision for future use of the corridor:

The corridor right now is, because it's very narrow, the corridor is both narrow and has curves. Even if it was in excellent condition it could only go at 25 mph, so you're not going to have much of a transportation use on that.
This statement is both erroneous and highly misleading. For example, the corridor has, in fact, a generous width throughout most of its length of about 100 feet. Yes, there are occasional curves, but there are curves on almost every rail line in the world, just as there are on the new light rail line being constructed by Sound Transit in Seattle. There are also curves on highways, including on the largely parallel I-405 freeway. But the Executive does not advocate that roads with curves should be torn up and replaced by bicycle trails. And even if curves were a real problem -- which they obviously are not -- they could be straightened, and relatively easily.

Also, the actual speed limit for passenger trains on the railroad is 30 mph, which is considerably faster than rush hour traffic on the parallel I-405.3 And it would be a fairly simple matter to increase this speed limit with track upgrades that could be accomplished at a tiny fraction of the cost of Sound Transit's light rail line currently under construction in Seattle.

Responding to a question from Scher about the section of the railroad from Woodinville to Bellevue and whether there would be "any further rail running on that corridor in the near future," the Executive said:

I don't know. That will be, the Port will have to make a decision on whether it wants rail there and at what cost they're going to have to put rail there. My sense is that not initially. They may do that in the future, but I can't see that happening initially. They're going to have to upgrade it. It is Burlington Northern Santa Fe, so it's in very, very poor shape. The Puget Sound Regional Council says it's also in very, very poor shape. So they're going to have to do an upgrade before they're going to be able to get somebody to use it. And the speeds are going to be very slow. Even right now if they were to use it, the speeds would still be limited to 25 mph.
This statement is likewise both factually incorrect and very misleading. "Very, very poor shape" would mean that the track is barely passable and is subject to frequent derailments even at speeds as low as five or ten miles per hour. Nothing could be further from the truth. The track is mostly, in fact, in fair to good condition, and is typical of a secondary main line.4 It has a Federal Railway Administration rating of 25 mph for freight and 30 mph for passenger service. The route is being used regularly by Boeing to ship its valuable 737 fuselages to its assembly plant in Renton without problems, it was used for double stack container trains during 2007, and it was used by the dinner train until it was unnecessarily forced to terminate its operation on July 31. The track is suitable for use with minimal modification for a pilot commuter rail service and can be gradually upgraded during the course of normal maintenance. Even the Puget Sound Regional Council's BNSF Corridor Preservation Study, despite all of its problems, did not state that the track was in "very, very poor shape."

The statement is misleading because even the worst of track can be upgraded at a relatively modest cost. Even if the Eastside railroad's track were in "very, very poor shape," it could be totally rehabilitated at a cost which is only a tiny fraction of the cost of the ultra-costly new light rail lines that the Executive has been pushing to build.5

Asked if he thought there would be a tax increase to pay for the estimated $42.5 million for the approximately 13 miles of railroad, the Executive replied:

No, no, I will never put a, I will not initiate a ballot increase, a ballot issue. And under the County charter I'd have to do that. And I'm not going to do that. The taxpayers should not have to vote in my opinion on a tax increase to either acquire or develop a trail.
Of course, he would not want to risk asking the voters for tens of millions of dollars for a project that is highly unpopular on the Eastside and which makes sense to very few people (i.e., ripping out an operating railroad in order to construct more bicycle trails parallel to existing, and lightly used, bicycle trails and parallel to the most congested stretch of freeway in the entire Northwest). Rather, his strategy has focused on sneaking this through before the public becomes fully aware of what has been going on.

It should also be kept in mind that the King County voters may have already unwittingly provided the Executive with funds for this project with their approval of two property tax increase measures for parks and trails in the August 21, 2007 primary election. This is hinted at by his subsequent statement:

And I think that we will have the capacity within King County using a variety of different funds. Not CX funds, I think people look and say -- current general taxpayer funds. We have different pots of money in King County that we think qualify legally to acquire the I-90 to Coulon Park and from a, and the Redmond spur.

To Scher's question: "You did not lose the dual use and you wanted to maintain the dual use for this part of the corridor?" the Executive replied:

That is correct. I wanted the dual use in the corridor and we wanted the I-90 to Coulon Park to be. It's just not big enough for dual use. You go down there and look at it, it's just not. I think the Port when it did its high, when you ride that corridor on their equipment you realize the limitations between the Wilburton Tunnel going and south to the Coulon Park.

Responding to a caller named Jerry who asked how he could justify constructing trails on the sections of railroad that he wants King County to purchase given that they are already paralleled by trails, the Executive said:

The, um, neither one of these corridors is a transportation corridor under any scenario for -- you just can't use them there. I think that everybody that's looked at them has concluded that -- people may disagree, but -- I think that whether it's the Port of Seattle or whether it's the PSRC, people have looked and said those should be corridors for walking, jogging and biking. They're not corridors that are wide enough to handle a two way transportation system -- and that's what you'd have to do, unless one was just to condemn all the property adjacent to those corridors for that capacity. And I don't think people are prepared to announce or do that yet.
The Executive completely avoided answering the question of why it is so urgent to spend tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money to acquire and rip out 13 miles of an operating railroad in order to construct trails that are already paralleled by trails.

Also, the Port did not say that those sections of the corridor should be used for trails instead of for rail. Moreover, there is strong indication that the PSRC's costly study was designed from the start to support the Executive's desire to scrap the railroad rather than to provide an objective analysis of the railroad and its potential.6

The Executive added:

Well you know the Port wishes to have the dual use capability. That's going to be up to a future generation or future electeds to make a decision about how that's going to be used. Right now, no matter what ever you do with the corridor, it's only going to be one way. It can't be a two way corridor, and so there's some challenges trying to figure. And the only way you can make it a two way corridor is actually begin to do some condemnation of adjacent properties, and I think that everybody's saying that whoa, hold it a second before you go there. Reserve the capacity, there may be a new technology in the offing in the future, so we're going to have a trail component in, but what you do with the remaining corridor in terms of transportation needs is going to be up to, I don't think the Port intends to act upon that.
The Executive repeated his factually incorrect statement that the railroad is not suitable for transportation use because the corridor is too narrow. Although some sections might only be wide enough for a single track, this is absolutely no obstacle to operating a commuter rail service. This is extremely basic railroad knowledge. Most railway lines in the U.S. and throughout the world are single track, but they all manage to operate in both directions. Even many commuter rail lines and light rail lines are mostly single track or have extensive single track sections. (See, for example, the picture of the new light rail system in Nottingham, U.K. on the home page of this web site.) A single track line with strategically located passing sidings (which already exist on the Eastside railroad) can accommodate a high frequency of service, perhaps with trains running as often as every 15 or 10 minutes in each direction. Eastside Rail Now! is proposing that initially a simple pilot service be launched with just a few round trips per day, and, if successful, this could be gradually upgraded to hourly -- or more often during peak periods -- trips.

1The audio archive of this show is available on KUOW's website. The comments by the Executive are transcribed as closely as possible to his actual words.

2The rail line that formerly ran through the City of Sammamish was the subject of a long and bitter battle over the Executive's similar push to scrap it and convert it into a bicycle trail. His success in scrapping that line several years ago apparently emboldened him to soon thereafter embark on a crusade to do the same thing with the remaining sections of railroad on the Eastside. He was quoted in the Seattle Times as saying: "I don't think we'll have the issues with this that we had with the East Lake Sammamish Trail." His prediction has turned out to be quite correct in that the issues are definitely not the same. Not only are they very different, but also the opposition is much stronger and broader-based. The Executive could only dream that the issues were the same.

3Data compiled by WSDOT shows that the average travel time for the 13.5 mile morning commuter trip from Tukwila to Bellevue jumped to an agonizing 42 minutes by 2006, or less than 20 mph.

4An exception is the Redmond branch. However, even that line is still quite passable at modest speeds.

5The cost for the light rail line currently being constructed by Sound Transit in Seattle is roughly $200 million per mile, when the cost of the tunnels is taken into consideration. The cost for Sound Transit's proposed East Link light rail line from Seattle through Bellevue was projected at approximately $325 million per mile, exclusive of cost overruns. The Eastside railroad could be substantially upgraded to allow for higher speeds, smoother rides and greater capacity at less than $1 million per mile, or about $40 million for the entire 47 miles of track. This vast difference is largely because the railroad, including its right of way and other infrastructure, already exists and thus does not need to be constructed from scratch.

6The bias of the PSRC's report is discussed in depth in A Closer Look at the PSRC's "BNSF Corridor Preservation Study", Eastside Rail Now!, November 2007. There is one fault with this review, namely that it only mentions the tip of the iceberg regarding the possible conflict of interest involved in the creation of the PSRC study; however, such fault is to be corrected in a future update.

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This page created January 9, 2008.
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