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VIEWFINDER: Gallery and Story on the Old Rail Line That Weaves Through Kirkland

The city is in the planning process to turn its part of the 42-mile Eastside Rail Corridor into a hiking/biking trail and maybe a light transit route. It wants to hear from you.

Mission: Experience the almost six-mile length of Kirkland’s portion of the 42-mile Eastside Rail Corridor, the former Burlington Northern Sante Fe spur line acquired by the Port of Seattle for King County in 2009 and now likely to become a paved hiking/biking trail weaving through the fabric of the city.

Logistics: The line runs about 5.7 miles from Woodinville in the northeast corner of Kirkland south through the Totem Lake, Juanita, Norkirk, Highlands, Everest, Houghton and Lakeview neighborhoods to the South Kirkland Park and Ride on the border with Bellevue. It is virtually flat so there is almost no elevation gain. The tread is poor, with railroad ties that are extremely slippery when wet and large gravel on the side of the tracks that often makes for hard walking. There are numerous street crossings where caution is advised, and at least three trestles that appear sturdy but which probably should be avoided by scrambling down to the street level.

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TRAINS RATTLE and clatter no more down the tracks of what has become known as the Eastside Rail Corridor, and the nearly six miles of the steel ribbon that weave through Kirkland feel lonely, desolate and abandoned. Right now this route does not make for a good hike, we discovered, and it’s next to impossible to bike.

But it is easy to imagine that in the not-too-distant future this corridor will be a smoothly paved, vital link between Kirkland’s neighborhoods, hosting a busy traffic of hikers, bikers, skaters, runners, joggers, doggers, stroller-pushers and espresso-sipping, Lycra-clad power-walkers.

The intense popularity of Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail and the Sammamish River Trail from Bothell to Redmond – to which the Eastside Rail Corridor is linked – is a vivid example of what happens when an old rail line is turned it a pedestrian/bicycle path.

“This is a critical opportunity,” said Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride. “It connects parts of Kirkland that are key to our economic future.  In the short term, it should be a bike and pedestrian path. We need to get people out and about and connecting with their community. At some future time when our region can afford it, the corridor is wide enough that we can also use it as a light people-mover.

“It’s exciting. It’s an opportunity we cannot lose.”

The Kirkland City Council in January adopted an interest statement that says the corridor should remain in public ownership to serve the transportation needs of the city through a pedestrian and bicycle path and potentially future light transit. Now the city Transportation Commission and city public works staff are seeking broad public input about the plan and have sent out surveys.

At the January council meeting, Councilman David Asher urged the city’s full participation because, “it seems to me this project can be a fundamental game-changer.”

But others urged caution. Kirkland resident Doug Engle, head of GNP Railway, said a need remains for traditional heavy rail on the Eastside and said the city should not count it out.

“We fully support rail and trail,” he told the council. “We need to do some research on this. The necessary freight traffic is there.”

Others don’t buy it.

“I’m a bit skeptical about that. Burlington Northern had been trying to get rid of this line for 20 years,” Lisa McConnell of Houghton, a member of the group Eastside Trail Advocates, said recently. “Our major priority is that a trail is put on there. It’s not just about bicycle commuting, although there are a lot of studies that show bike commuting makes sense.

“It makes economic sense and from a neighborhood perspective to have good places to walk.”

The entire 42-mile length of the Eastside Rail Corridor runs from Snohomish south to Renton. The Port of Seattle acquired the line for King County, which is developing plans similar to Kirkland’s and working with other jurisdictions.

At any rate, we walked virtually its entire length recently and concluded that we will wait until it is an actual trail before returning.

The route does traverse pretty forests on its north and south ends. But it also runs through less-than-attractive business and light industrial districts in the Par-Mac area near Totem Lake and the Everest neighborhood. As mentioned, the tread is sketchy and uncomfortable.

The route barely touches the downtown area on Kirkland Way, which is a pity – it would be much more attractive economically, recreationally and aesthetically if it shot right through the heart of the city.

Ending virtually at the South Kirkland Park and Ride, it’s easy to anticipate heavy bike commuter use by people from all the neighborhoods it touches who work in Seattle, or even Bellevue and Redmond.

And with a smooth, soft asphalt surface, it will undoubtedly become a handy resource for anybody and everybody in Kirkland who enjoys getting outside and moving.

Take a look at the photo gallery here and see what you think.

Jerry Gropp Architect AIA February 25, 2011 at 12:48 AM
Bellingham has a marvelous trail on the long-abandoned Interurban tracks that would be a good model for Kirkland to follow. We often hike this when visiting our family living on Chuckanut Drive.
Greg Johnston (Editor) February 25, 2011 at 01:16 AM
Jerry you’re right, Bellingham’s Interurban is a great trail. Although I’ve never taken it, just crossed it while hiking Chuckanut Mountain, it is most definitely worth checking out: www.co.whatcom.wa.us/parks/trails/interurban.jsp. Thanks!
Art Valla February 26, 2011 at 11:19 PM
I have often walked sections of this track. Trails are great things and a true community asset. This section is particularly pretty, especially in the fall. Now here is the downside. Once a trail, always a trail. There is just no way that our politicians would ever advocate tearing out a trail to return to rails, even for rapid transit. Right now we are spending $1,000,000,000 to put the link light rail over I-90. This is crazy. No floating bridge anywhere has ever lasted more than 50 years. No one has ever put a train on a floating bridge. Yet we are spending a huge chunk of our transit dollars to do so even though the Burke-Gillman would actually be a better route. Why? Well, the BK is a precious trail. When I moved to this area in 1952 there were about 500,000 people in Seattle and 250,000 people in the surrounding King County. Today, 59 years later, there are about 600,000 people in Seattle and 1,250,000 people in the surrounding King County. During the next 25 years we are expected to grow by another 1,000,000 people. They will follow the last 1,000,000 people out to the edges of the Urban Growth Boundary, not into Seattle. If we "destroy" our existing rail infrastructure by converting it into a permanent trail, we will be forced to repeat our history of doing stupid things, like I-90 Link Light Rail. If we are going to put in a trail, we need to do it right and leave the rail bed alone. Put the trial next to the tracks, even if it costs more now.

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