Railroad Files Lawsuit to Block Removal of Kirkland Tracks

By Keith Ervin, April 5, 2013, Seattle Times

Kirkland may have to halt its plans to start pulling up old railroad tracks this month and replace them with a 5¾-mile trail for walkers, runners and bikers.

Ballard Terminal Railroad, a short-line carrier that wants to restore freight service to Kirkland and Bellevue, asked a federal judge in Seattle on Monday to stop Kirkland from tearing up the tracks.

The suit is the latest dust-up over the future of the 42-mile Eastside Rail Corridor, an old rail line stretching from Renton to Snohomish that went into public ownership in 2009.

Although various interest groups and the five jurisdictions that own parts of the corridor share a long-term goal of locating a trail and rail transit side by side, they have clashed over whether the old rails are worth keeping.

Private-sector rail advocates, backed by the Woodinville and Snohomish city councils, had asked Kirkland to delay removal of the tracks in order to allow a fuller discussion about whether they could be used for excursion trains and to haul construction materials and other freight.

But Kirkland, which bought a portion of the corridor last year, has pushed ahead with its plans to remove rails this spring and open an interim gravel trail next year that would connect Totem Lake, Google offices and the South Kirkland Park and Ride.

The lawsuit by Ballard Terminal Railroad puts that timeline — and the future of Kirkland’s $3.6 million trail project — into question.

The railroad company, which currently runs freight trains between Woodinville and Snohomish, asked for a temporary restraining order blocking the removal of tracks. U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman has scheduled a May 3 hearing on the motion.

The company told the court the federal Surface Transportation Board must decide the fate of the rails, and in a separate petition to the board asked it to remove the rail corridor’s designation for interim trail use, potentially allowing the railroad to use the tracks, which were abandoned by BNSF Railway in 2008.

Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett said in an online message to residents he was “confident that Kirkland will ultimately be able to carry out our citizens’ vision” for the corridor.

If the court orders a delay, Triplett said in an interview, “then you have to ask what have they accomplished. They’ve taken a corridor that had a lot of excitement around it in Kirkland and they’re going to have it sitting there once again, rusting and fallow. We are not going to leave it like that. We are going to do everything to get it back on track.”

Ballard Terminal’s attempt to restore rail service recalls the now-bankrupt GNP Railway’s similar effort between Woodinville and Redmond.

King County, Redmond and other local governments opposed the GNP petition, which the federal government rejected in 2011 because of the company’s financial problems.

Ballard Terminal, by contrast, is “a financially sound Class III carrier” that owns freight lines in Ballard and Pierce County and operates trains on the Port of Seattle’s Woodinville-to-Snohomish line, the company’s general manager, Byron Cole, told federal regulators.

Concrete giant CalPortland told the federal government in a letter it would like to use rail for transporting sand and gravel to Bellevue-area construction sites, and Woodinville-based Bobby Wolford Trucking wrote that it wants to remove construction spoils by rail.

Triplett said Wolford “must not have felt very strongly about the rail opportunities since he was one of the bidders on taking our rails out.”

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