Tacoma City Council Approves Land Swap with BNSF Railway

By Lewis Kamb, March 5, 2013, The News Tribune

The Tacoma City Council unanimously approved a complicated land swap Tuesday with BNSF Railway, clearing the city’s way for acquiring the last strip needed to eventually develop a pedestrian and bicycle pathway along the historic Prairie Line rail corridor.

The council’s action effectively ends a nearly decadelong grappling match between the city and the railroad over a 20-foot wide swath of real estate running from Pacific Avenue to South 15th Street between the Tacoma Art Museum and the United Way Building.

Councilman Ryan Mello — who called the missing trail link’s acquisition key to what eventually will be “a transformative project downtown” — praised city staff members for their perseverance in the drawn-out negotiations.

“Anyone who works directly with the railroad knows it’s like a kingdom unto itself,” Mello said.

But part of the deal places the onus on the city for dealing with an aging billboard with a perpetual easement and any other problems that might crop up during development.

“The property is accepted as-is and it cannot be assigned to another party without (the railway’s) approval,” said Martha Anderson, the city’s assistant economic development director.

Under the deal’s terms, BNSF will “donate” the strip to the city along with two easements — one of which authorizes Tacoma to build a future pedestrian overpass in a mutually agreed location between A and East D streets.

In return, the city will vacate and close for good the underpass beneath Interstate 705 at A Street. BNSF long had sought a permanent shutdown of that stretch — which the city has kept closed since 2009 — to prevent at-grade railroad crossings.

Under a second part of the deal, the city will allow BNSF to build a road across 1.8 acres of city-owned land in South Tacoma, so the railway can meet an access requirement to one day develop an adjacent 157-acre property it owns.

BNSF must pay for the road’s estimated $1.7 million cost and build it to city standards, Anderson said. The city would assume the road’s maintenance.

The agreement also requires BNSF to donate to the city about 6 acres along South Tacoma Way, between South 35th and South 37th streets, Anderson added.

By acquiring the missing trail link, the city can move forward with plans for the Prairie Line Trail — the linchpin in a long-envisioned “rails to trails” network of public pathways across Tacoma.

Dating to 1873, the now-abandoned rail corridor once served as the route of the first Northern Pacific train to reach Puget Sound. The old line’s segment eyed for development spans about a mile, running from downtown’s south end through the Brewery District, cutting across the University of Washington Tacoma campus and crossing Pacific Avenue to the Thea Foss Waterfront.

Once developed, the Prairie Line Trail will offer the potential to connect downtown with South Tacoma via the Water Ditch Trail, and with the Tacoma Narrows via the Scott Pierson Trail.

Noting the city agreed to accept the trail link “as-is with all faults,” Councilman Marty Campbell wondered: “Do we have a pretty good guess what all those faults are?”

Anderson responded: “We don’t have a full accounting of that yet.”

She noted the strip could contain pollution, but the city’s plan to develop a trail doesn’t require much digging likely to expose any potential environmental problems.

Under the deal’s terms, the city will inherit a small billboard that stands at an angle off of Pacific Avenue, directly within the swath. City officials weren’t aware of the billboard until late in the negotiations, because it didn’t show up in a city survey.

CBS Outdoor holds a perpetual easement for the billboard, which has been deemed nonconforming under the city’s current billboard regulations.

“We’re not sure how we’re going to address (the billboard) yet,” Anderson said following Tuesday’s meeting.

The UWT will manage development of the trail’s segment through its campus, from South 17th to South 21st streets, leaving the city to handle the segments to the north and south of campus.

The city so far has received a $465,000 grant for preliminary conceptual designs. Once the design work is completed this summer, Tacoma will seek construction funding.

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