Can the Eastside Rail Corridor bring traffic relief to commuters?
Dressed in blue jeans and bundled in a heavy, all-weather jacket, thick gloves, and a scarf for protection against a blustery, rain-speckled winter morning, Christie True, the director of King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks, gingerly stepped out onto the Wilburton Trestle’s aged but sturdy wood planks and took in the view.
Earlier, True had confessed her unease about heights, but she needn’t venture far on the trestle’s roughly 1,000-foot-long, 100-foot-high expanse to survey surroundings both natural and urbane.
Richards Creek rippled below, surrounded by thickets of reeds and trees that spilled over from Mercer Slough. Just west, on Interstate 405, northbound traffic crawled toward downtown Bellevue’s glimmering high-rise buildings, all visible from atop the trestle.
Since its construction in 1904, the Wilburton Trestle has been part of a 42-mile, single track of railroad that stretches between Snohomish County to the north, and Renton and Redmond to the south. Cargo, such as coal and lumber imported from Canada, and Boeing fuselages assembled at plants in Renton and Everett, as well as passengers, such as tourists and excursionists aboard the old Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, traversed this trestle until 2008, when the last train crossed this elevated span, and the tracks sat dormant for a decade.
Now, an entirely new demographic is poised to access the trestle: bicyclists and pedestrians.
The trestle is one section of the proposed Eastside Rail Corridor, a 26-mile route that, when completed, will meander through Renton, Bellevue, Kirkland, Totem Lake, Redmond, and Woodinville, with the potential to connect an additional 16 miles farther north into Snohomish County.
To be clear, True wasn’t visiting the trestle simply to take in the view. The day before, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a proposed levy package that, if approved by King County voters, would raise $738 million for parks, trails, and open spaces between 2020 and 2025. Of that amount, approximately $50 million would go toward the Eastside Rail Corridor, including a project to pave the Wilburton Trestle for bicyclists and pedestrians.
True’s visit to the trestle aimed to highlight how the old structure’s adaptive reuse, as well as the larger levy passage, could benefit the Eastside.
“I can imagine a lot of people, especially on a beautiful day, coming up here even at night, with the lights from the city, looking across and seeing some amazing views,” True said. “People might just come here to go out on the trestle and experience that.”
Development of the Eastside Rail Corridor really gained steam in 2009, when the Port of Seattle paid BNSF approximately $81 million to purchase the entire 42-mile railroad line between Renton and Snohomish County.
Over the past decade, King County and several Eastside cities have purchased and developed portions of the trail, such as the roughly 4-mile Redmond Central Connector and the 5.75-mile Cross Kirkland Corridor. Sound Transit acquired a 1-mile segment in Bellevue. That leaves nearly 16 miles of the remaining 26-mile Eastside Rail Corridor under King County ownership. Last year, the county completed the development of a 4-mile segment between Renton and South Bellevue, and a 1-mile segment between South Kirkland and State Route 520. The remaining 12 miles, which includes the Wilburton Trestle, is awaiting funding, development, or both.
Trail proponents argue it’s not just tourists, cyclists, joggers, and other Eastside recreationalists who could be served by a completed trail.
“I think it will provide a lot of opportunity not just for recreation, but for commuting up and down the Eastside,” said Constantine during an interview with 425 Business last year. “I think it’s going to be wildly popular once it’s up and open. It takes people through some of the most popular destinations in the region.”
photo by Rodrigo DeMedeiros
SomeEastside companies are increasingly looking at the Eastside Rail Corridor as another tool that could provide their employees some commute relief, according to True. Proponents argue the trail would connect employment centers, commercial districts, and transit hubs, becoming the most heavily used trail corridor for both commuters and recreational users on the Eastside.
When REI announced in 2016 that it would relocate its headquarters from Kent to Bellevue’s Spring District, the company cited multimodal transit infrastructure, such as Sound Transit’s East Link light rail, which will begin service in 2023 and include a Spring District station, and the Eastside Rail Corridor, as a reason.
“The region is growing, and it is no secret that current transit infrastructure is under pressure,” the company said in a press release announcing its move. REI’s new 400,000-square-foot Spring District headquarters, scheduled to open in 2020, will be large enough for 1,400 employees and occupy an 8-acre campus served by the Eastside Rail Corridor. “We are encouraged that the region’s community leaders are planning to invest billions of dollars to improve local transit options, including miles of bike lanes.”
In Kirkland, Google spent approximately $3 million to develop a segment of the trail that runs through its corporate campus. That trail is accessible to the public and Google’s employees, many of whom use the trail to and from the South Kirkland Park & Ride for work.
“We’ve had strong business interest and support of this project,” said King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks environmental affairs officer David St. John. “I think businesses see the opportunity for this corridor to become an asset for their employees to get to and from work. We consistently hear that from multiple business entities out there. It’s a particularly encouraging part of our work.”
Representatives from Boeing and SECO Development in Renton, Kaiser Permanente and KG Investment Properties in Bellevue, Physio Control in Redmond, and EvergreenHealth and SRM Development in Kirkland have joined a commission to find funding solutions to complete the trail. (Kaiser Permanente has contributed $500,000 to the trail’s development.)
Former Washington state Sen. Bill Finkbeiner is a member of the commission, lives on the Eastside, and owns commercial property a block away from the Eastside Rail Corridor.
Finkbeiner noted the region’s significant trails shadow the region’s most significant highways and interstates. The Mountains to Sound Greenway runs alongside Interstate 90, connecting Seattle to Factoria and Issaquah; a trail along State Route 520 connects Seattle and Redmond; and a portion of the Burke-Gilman Trail roughly follows State Route 522, connecting North Seattle to Kenmore and Bothell.
“I think a lot of people are like me,” he said. “They want to bike commute, but they are afraid to ride on the roads … If you give them a trail network that overlays almost exactly our major freeways, you suddenly make a trip from Renton to Bellevue or Bothell to Bellevue a realistic option. … On top of that, you throw in worsening commute times and electric bikes, and suddenly this becomes a realistic alternative. If an electric bike does 20 miles per hour and I-405 is moving at 15 miles per hour, why not ride an electric bike at least some of the time?”
He added: “It’s not going to drain I-405. But we don’t really have a viable alternative.”
Finkbeiner has a point. Short of someone devising a way to build more roads in a region hemmed in by lakes and mountains, or local officials finding a way to curb the influx of people moving to the Puget Sound region, alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles — such as light rail, vanpools, and trails — suddenly become viable for Eastside workers.
Wilburton Trestle Design rendering
Still,more work and fundraising are needed before a Kirkland resident can commute to her job at Boeing in Renton along a fully completed and connected Eastside Rail Corridor.
A significant trail gap is in Bellevue, just south of Interstate 90 and extending to the Spring District. The Washington State Department of Transportation is contributing $19.6 million to a $26 million project to pave a 2.5-mile section between Coal Creek Parkway and Ripley Lane, as well as build a new bicycle-pedestrian crossing over I-405 just south of the Wilburton Trestle in Bellevue.
Map by Jorgen Burt
Another significant trail gap exists between Totem Lake and Redmond.
Meanwhile, Kirkland is spending approximately $18 million to build the Totem Lake Connector, a flyover bridge that will safely carry passengers over one of the busiest (and most perilous, for bikers and walkers, at least) intersections along the trail — Totem Lake Boulevard and Northeast 124th Street.
So far, more than $93 million has been spent by the cities of Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond; King County; and Sound Transit to purchase, preserve, and improve sections of the rail corridor for public use.
According to True, the King County Council will review this year’s parks levy proposal and likely finalize it by the end of April, in time for it to appear on the ballot on Aug. 6.
If the levy is approved, major connections, such as the Wilburton Trestle, could be open to the public as early as 2022, in time for East Link light rail service to reach the Eastside.
Based on history, True is cautiously optimistic voters will approve the levy. In 2013, voters approved a six-year, $396 million parks levy by more than 70 percent, costing homeowners approximately $5 per month for a home valued at $500,000. The latest levy proposal would replace the last levy, which expires at the end of this year, and cost homeowners approximately $7 per month for a home valued at $500,000.
“We’ve heard no opposition to the parks levy, and we haven’t experienced that in the past,” she explained. “We arehearing of voter tax fatigue. But at the same time, we are hearing from people saying, ‘Yeah; this is a good investment. We need this.’”