How to get the Eastside rail corridor on track

To ease monster congestion on Interstate 405 and its adjacent highways, the region needs to move forward with the Eastside rail corridor, writes guest columnist Les Rubstello.

HAVE you noticed how bad traffic is on the north end of Interstate 405? When I was driving north on Highway 9 out of Woodinville recently, the southbound traffic on Highway 9 was at a standstill as motorists tried to get on Highway 522, still two miles from I-405. These parking lot conditions on our freeway and state highways kind of make you wish for the Great Recession, when fewer people were driving to work.

Are we making the right choices? The Washington State Department of Transportation is adding express toll lanes to I-405, which will help those who can buy their way out of congestion, and Sound Transit is spending billions to get light rail to Bellevue and Microsoft.

But, there is no transit planned to directly connect East Snohomish County to the commercial hub of Bellevue, without time-consuming transfers on Community Transit.

While there are no quick-and-easy solutions, there is one relatively inexpensive option that currently is going unutilized: the 44-mile, publicly owned Eastside rail corridor running from Snohomish to Renton.

Given all the money being spent in the region on light rail, I can’t believe that we are not investing in putting the Eastside rail corridor back into productive use.

Sound Transit has been building Link light rail by Sea-Tac Airport for about $200 million a mile. By comparison, the 70-mile passenger-rail line connecting Sonoma and Marin counties in California is under development by Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, with estimated capital costs for clean diesel trains and a bike-pedestrian pathway at $541 million — $7.7 million a mile.

It surely would not be as easy as buying a couple of small trains and starting them running on the existing Eastside rail corridor. The track needs to be upgraded for passenger rail traffic, and stations and associated parking have to be located. But, it is doable, and it is viable.

Just look at I-405 from Renton to Woodinville some morning or evening and imagine how attractive a parallel passenger rail line would be.

Beyond the service of passenger rail along I-405, the Eastside rail corridor, with a bridge over I-405 in South Bellevue, could provide an emergency backup route for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline during winter slides along the Mukilteo bluffs.

The 2008 Sound Transit 2 ballot measure included $50 million for a proposed public-private partnership to provide capital investments for passenger rail on the Eastside rail corridor. Sound Transit’s board redirected the funds to other projects. A future Sound Transit 3 vote should reconfirm that 2008 commitment, while also leveraging private investment from industry. Tourism and outdoor recreation represent other private funding opportunities.

Remember the old dinner train from Renton to Woodinville wineries? Now 100 wineries are in Woodinville, with plans to connect them on a “Bounty of Washington” tasting train if tracks are preserved.

The Eastside rail corridor is also a great trails connector. Snohomish County plans to build an 11-mile segment that will connect 172 miles of trails from Skagit to Pierce counties.

The Eastside rail corridor is a once-in-a-lifetime grass-roots opportunity where citizens could work directly with elected leaders, such as City of Snohomish Mayor Karen Guzak, my co-chair of the Eastside TRailway Alliance.

It could be done for millions of public and private investments — not billions of taxpayer-only dollars. And it could be done in five years — not decades. An easy choice.

Les Rubstello is a member of the Woodinville City Council.