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Originally published December 21, 2009 at 4:27 PM | Page modified December 21, 2009 at 8:58 PM

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Port of Seattle to pay BNSF $81M for Eastside rail line

The Port of Seattle announced today it is buying the partially abandoned Renton-to-Seattle rail line from BNSF Railway for a reduced price of $81.4 million — a deal that may eventually lead to side-by-side trails and passenger trains.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A weakened real-estate market and the Port of Seattle's financial strains led the agency to renegotiate a deal and buy the Eastside rail corridor for a price that once seemed out of reach.

In a deal six years in the making, Port officials have signed final documents to pay BNSF Railway $81.4 million for the partially abandoned Renton-to-Snohomish rail line.

A year and a half ago, the Port was willing to pay $103 million plus closing costs.

The final agreement will keep freight trains operating north of Woodinville and could lead to the eventual development of side-by-side trails and passenger trains through the 42-mile corridor.

Rail and trail advocates have been debating whether the first priority in King County should be building a biking and walking trail or putting diesel commuter trains on the existing track. But for the moment, those interests and public officials are celebrating the deal that keeps the corridor intact and assures it won't be carved up by developers.

Port and BNSF officials signed papers to close the deal last week but filed documents with the King and Snohomish County recorders' offices too late Monday for money to be wired to BNSF the same day, said Port spokeswoman Charla Skaggs.

She said the Port will make its payment to the railroad this morning.

Completing the deal wasn't easy. It had been scheduled to close a year ago but was delayed by a crippled municipal-bond market. It became more problematic early this year when Port CEO Tay Yoshitani said he would ask the Port of Seattle Commission to contribute $300 million toward an interchange associated with the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project.

"That precipitated our relooking at our overall capital program and coming to the realization that purchase of the Eastside corridor by ourselves would put us in a real financial bind," Yoshitani said.

Yoshitani began talking to other governments and utilities. King County, Redmond, Sound Transit, Puget Sound Energy and the Cascade Water Alliance each agreed to put up millions to buy land or easements for use of the corridor.

"I went back to Burlington Northern [BNSF's earlier name] and said if you want to close this deal, all I can come up with and still make it a public transaction is $80 million," Yoshitani said.

"I think they were very aware that this was not something that the Port was going to be able to conclude on our own, number one. Number two, they recognized that the value of properties had gone down all over the country and we weren't exempt from that, and they were anxious to close this deal."

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Railroad spokesman Gus Melonas said in a statement, "BNSF is very pleased that the transaction is complete, and that the Puget Sound region will benefit from the corridor."

"This acquisition preserves an irreplaceable asset, addresses growing transportation needs, and provides the chance to expand our regional trail system," King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement.

The transaction changed shape many times. BNSF told state transportation officials in 2003 it wanted to sell the little-used rail corridor. King County began negotiating with BNSF in 2005, and the Port took its place in 2006.

The Port is buying the entire corridor and later will sell the portions south of the Snohomish County line to King County, Redmond and Sound Transit. Those separate agreements are still being negotiated.

Under those partnerships:

• King County will pay up to $26.5 million to acquire most of the abandoned rail line in the county, with the intention of eventually building a trail.

• Sound Transit is negotiating to pay up to $14 million to buy one mile of the corridor in Bellevue for possible light-rail use and for rights to operate passenger rail through the King County portions of the corridor.

• Redmond plans to buy the 3 ½ miles of the corridor within its boundaries for up to $9 million, to help knit downtown streets and utilities together and to provide a new trail route.

• Puget Sound Energy and the Cascade Water Alliance will negotiate purchase of utility easements. A price has not been announced, but sources said the combined cost to the utilities will be about $25 million.

The Port's outlay for the Snohomish County stretch will be $9 million, Yoshitani said. Short-haul rail operators GNP Railway and Ballard Terminal will maintain freight service there.

GNP also plans to launch an excursion train between the Sammamish Valley and downtown Snohomish next summer, Chief Financial Officer Doug Engle said.

About 33 miles of the corridor are in King County: the main line that runs from Renton to Woodinville through Bellevue and Kirkland, and a seven-mile spur between Woodinville and Redmond.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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