Ron Sims' Urgent Plea to
Scrap the Eastside Railroad

On November 29 King County Executive Ron Sims sent a five-page letter1 to the Port of Seattle in which he makes a seemingly desperate plea to the Port to require that the tracks be removed from the Eastside railroad as a key part of the deal for the Port to acquire the railroad from its current owner, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.2

After several paragraphs of flattering comments and other introductory statements, Executive Sims finally gets down to his real agenda in the middle of the second page where he states "...any cost effective development of an interim trail would require removal of the existing rails." The Executive clearly has not gotten over his obsession with scrapping the railroad, and doing so as quickly as possible, regardless of the irreparable harm that it would cause to the Eastside and to the region as a whole.

Unfortunately, this letter is full of the same twisted logic and non sequiturs that opponents of the railroad have been using all along. For example, the Executive talks about the importance of "preserving the corridor for dual use," but at the same time he insists that the tracks have to be removed. His definition of dual use clearly does not include rail transportation, because once the tracks have been removed, it would be virtually impossible to put them back in -- except perhaps at exorbitant cost and after a delay of many years or decades. As King County Councilmember Larry Phillips so correctly said: "Once it's dedicated as a trail, it'll stay that way forever.3

The Executive also refers to the supposed guarantees that the Rails-to-Trails Act would provide that the corridor could eventually be used again for rail. But a little research would show that there have been virtually no instances of success in the reconversion of trails railbanked under this Act back into rail lines. Actually, it is quite likely that the Executive's staff have already done such research and are not displeased with their findings.

The Executive also conveniently overlooks the facts that (a) the existing track is suitable for an initial trial commuter rail service,4 (b) the track can be gradually upgraded while it is in use (as has long been standard railway practice) and (c) it would be vastly more expensive to reinstall the track after it has been ripped out than to upgrade it while keeping it in place5.

In addition, the Executive totally overlooks the pivotal role that the Eastside railroad could play in providing vital back-up freight capacity essential when the BNSF mainline is blocked by mud slides, as recur in winter, or if a major disaster or terrorist event were to occur.

For some reason, the Executive has also suddenly started referring to the Eastside railroad's right of way as "the narrow corridor" and makes the strange statement that "...rail removal also frees up space so that the dual uses can be accommodated side by side in the narrow corridor." It has long been known that the right of way is mostly a generous 100 feet wide. This is more than sufficient for a single track, a trail and a linear nature preserve. Again, as the Executive is undoubtedly well aware that once the tracks are gone it will be virtually impossible to restore them, why the concern about freeing up space for dual uses?

The Executive has long proclaimed himself as a great advocate of rail transit. Yet he fails to point out that the $44 million of taxpayers' money that he is so intent on spending for yet another trail would be sufficient for a major upgrading of the railroad to provide a high quality, 42-mile commuter rail line in a region and corridor that so desperately needs.6 This is an almost negligible fraction of the cost of the much shorter East Link light rail line that he advocates, with its enormous price tag of $3.9 billion or more (exclusive of the usual cost overruns). He also fails to mention that it might be possible to launch a simple three year trial commuter service on the line for less than $10 million.7

There is absolutely no sign of concern for the taxpayers, who just voted down the ill-conceived and ultra-expensive Proposition 1 and then one week later got hit with a huge tax increase by King County anyway and without a public vote.8 Is it really that urgent to spend many tens of millions of dollars to rip out an operating railroad as quickly as possible in order to construct still another bicycle trail in a region that has more miles of them than almost anywhere else in the county?9

And where is the born-again environmentalist Sims' concern for the environment.10 Does he really care about the environment? It is likely that utilizing the Eastside railroad for a commuter rail service is the biggest, least expensive and least disruptive step that the Eastside could take to combat climate change as well as to deal with traffic congestion and other problems.11 Why does the Executive refuse to address these urgent issues?

The Executive's letter is critical of Port Commission President John Creighton for his very sensible comment that: "I would not be in favor of tearing up the tracks until we as a region have time to study it." The Executive claims that "...there has been such a regional study" and makes reference to the Puget Sound Regional Council's BNSF Corridor Preservation Study. However, he fails to point out that this study has now been fully discredited12, for such reasons as its failure to comply with Washington state law13, its failure to seriously consider the use of the railroad for commuter service, its failure to consider the cost to the environment of the loss of the railroad and its strong appearance of conflict of interest.14

Creighton is clearly doing the region a huge favor with his statement. The fact that he is one of the very few public officials to have the courage to publicly stand up to the Executive with regard to his latest push to scrap the railroad could be long remembered.

When the Executive's letter states almost frantically that "...we no longer 'have time' to further study the issue," it appears that he is panicking and/or trying to stampede the Port into making a rash decision. But apparently the Port is not about to be panicked or stampeded.

The Executive's letter goes on to state:

As the purchaser of the corridor, the Port has the right to leave the rails in place. But if you choose to keep them, you are de facto taking away any value of the transaction for King County government.
The first sentence is good news in that it acknowledges that the Port is not required to scrap the railroad. This seems to contradict his statement earlier in the letter that "BNSF has also required that the rails be removed."15

The second sentence is the dumbest and most disrespectful to the citizens of King County in the entire letter. It is in complete conflict with reality. The greatest value to King County and its residents by far is to use the railroad as an alternative to the parallel I-405 freeway as a means of fighting global warming and traffic congestion. A trail could be constructed at some future date when funds become available.

The letter appears to simultaneously have a bullying manner and an almost hysterical tone, and it reeks of hypocrisy and an utter lack of concern for the taxpayers and for the future of the region. The Executive is clearly showing signs of desperation to save a faux "dual use" project on which he has expended so much of his political capital, regardless of the consequences for the taxpayers.

The fundamental question for the Port as well as the King County Council and the taxpayers is about priorities. That is, which do we need more urgently, an existing rail line that parallels the most congested freeway in the Northwest and could be one of our biggest weapons in fighting global warming and providing regional mobility or an additional bicycle trail in a region that already has more bicycle trails than almost any other urban area. We can ultimately have both, but it would be far more beneficial and vastly cheaper to first keep the railroad and then build the trail later rather than to first replace the railroad by a trail and then attempt to rebuild the railroad from scratch.

It is never wise to make a decision -- and particularly a decision with regard to such as valuable asset as the Eastside railroad -- on the basis of hysteria and scare tactics. Now is the time to consider what is truly best for the Eastside and the region as a whole -- not just what is best for Ron Sims.16

1This letter was addressed to Tay Yoshitani, the Port's chief executive officer, and John Creighton, the Port Commission president. It is available in PDF format through a link on the Seattle P-I's November 30, 2007 article Rails-to-trail deal hits bump, County demands port remove tracks first. Last July Yoshitani, in the first major speech of his new tenure in Seattle, killed the previous deal to acquire and scrap the railroad that had been hatched by his predecessor (Mic Dinsmore) and Sims with his statement "...it doesn't make sense..."

2This deal calls for the Port to purchase the railroad from Burlington Northern after the latter has removed the tracks and then lease the right of way to King County for use as a trail. See Port to buy Eastside rail corridor, Seattle Times, November 02, 2007 or Deal would save Eastside rail corridor for trails, Seattle P-I, November 1, 2007.

3Swapping airport for rails not a done deal, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 3, 2007. Phillips is, of course, not the first or only one to have acknowledged that once removed it is virtually impossible to reinstall the tracks.

4Not even the severely flawed and obviously biased BNSF Corridor Preservation Study by the Puget Sound Regional Council makes the statement that the track is not suitable for a simple trial service. This is the same track that is safe enough for Boeing to use for shipment of its valuable aircraft fuselages to its Renton assembly plant. It is also the same track that more than 1.3 million people paid good money to ride on before the dinner train's lease was needlessly terminated in order to rid the line of traffic and facilitate its scrapping.

5Automatic machinery is available that efficiently replaces ties, rail and ballast. Such machinery runs on rails, and thus it is necessary to retain the existing track in order to put in new track. Thus the cost of replacing ties, rail and ballast would be greatly increased if the rails were first removed for its trackbed to be used as a trail.

6This estimate was provided by Read Fay, a retired BNSF regional manager. It is based on using commonly used automated machinery to replace the ties, rail and ballast. See Report: $37 million option for Eastside train, Seattle Times, November 28, 2007.

7For a detailed cost analysis, see Request for Funding in Sound Transit's 2008 Budget for a Three Year Pilot Commuter Service on the Eastside Railroad, Eastside Rail Now!, October 2007.

8See King County Council passes 3 new taxes, Seattle Times, November 14, 2007.

9There are in excess of 175 miles of trails in King County, according to the County's website, which is more than almost any other metropolitan area in the U.S. Some of these are parallel to sections of the Eastside railroad, as pointed out in The Strange Case of the Already Existing Trails, Eastside Rail Now!, July 22, 2007.

In contrast, there are zero miles of commuter rail on the Eastside. Were the railroad to be scrapped, the total number of miles of bicycle trails in the county would soar to more than 200 (not counting the proposed section in Snohomish County), but there would still be zero miles of commuter railroad on the Eastside until sometime after the year 2027, if ever!

10This professed great concern with the environment and the taxpayers' money was announced in his September 27, 2007 guest editorial in the Seattle Times The roads-and-transit plan: so much cost to do so little.

11For a detailed look at why the railroad is so crucial in the local effort to combat climate change, see How Commuter Rail on the Eastside Can Help Fight Global Warming, Eastside Rail Now!, November 2007.

12See A Closer Look at the PSRC's "BNSF Corridor Preservation Study", Eastside Rail Now!, November 2007.

13Washington state law (RCW 47.80.030) requires the use of least cost planning methodology (LCPM) for regional transportation studies, including those conducted by the PSRC. The term least cost planning methodology was not mentioned even once in the PSRC's study. Moreover, that study failed to use any recognized transportation infrastructure decision making methodology. For more about LCPM, see A Brief Introduction to Least Cost Planning, Eastside Rail Now!, September 2007.

14Sims certainly cannot claim that he was unaware of the severe problems with the PSRC report. For example, he attended the November 29 Sound Transit board meeting in his capacity as a Sound Transit board member, and representatives of two respected organizations (Eastside Rail Now! and All Aboard Washington) mentioned the defective nature of the report during their testimony at that meeting. The Executive could have at least had the integrity to point out in his letter that the PSRC report was controversial. Much better yet, in the interests of the public that he was elected to serve, he should have launched a serious inquiry into the alleged defects of the report, including the accusations of failure to comply with state law and of a conflict of interest.

15 If true, this is very unusual, as railroads rarely make such a requirement when they divest branch lines. What is much more likely is that the Executive himself has attempted to make this a condition.

16Actually, this dogged push to scrap the railroad could be harmful for Sims' political career as well. Some observers suggest that the best strategy for him would have been to reverse his position with regard to the railroad just as he did with regard to Proposition 1. His current position reeks of self-serving hypocrisy. There is also a sense of betrayal among other elected officials who worked so diligently for years to pass Proposition 1 and some concern as to why they would now want to support him regarding the railroad issue -- even if he were on the right side of it.

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This page created December 3, 2007.
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