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Originally published Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

All aboard Eastside commuter rail

To hear the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center describe an Eastside commuter rail line is to believe solutions exist for traffic congestion and transit options.

To hear the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center describe an Eastside commuter rail line is to believe solutions exist for traffic congestion and transit options.

Rail enthusiasts and frustrated commuters gathered in Snohomish last week to soak up the center's vision for the 42 miles of track the Port of Seattle is negotiating to buy from BNSF Railway. The deal, estimated at $103 million, would keep a priceless corridor whole and in public ownership from Snohomish to Renton.

Initial thinking was the Port would buy the tracks and swap them for desirable tracts with King County. The rails would come up, a bicycle trail would go down, and an earnest pledge would be made to construct something or other for commuters in the future.

Cascadia director Bruce Agnew has a better idea: Do both. Now. Agnew and his organization are longtime rail advocates, and they have lots of enthusiastic company.

In the finest tradition of sales, no problem, price or skeptical attitude is insurmountable. The message comes hard and fast, the pictures are pretty, and the audience is eager. Snohomish residents cannot get a bus south to Bellevue and Highway 9 is insufferable.

They join a wide swath of Puget Sound impatient for reliable links between jobs and home.

The Eastside is especially ripe for ideas and doable proposals. A 42-mile commuter rail line with stations at Snohomish, Woodinville, Totem Lake, downtown Kirkland, south Kirkland and Bellevue captures the imagination. An existing rail use — a single-track freight corridor with passing lanes — would be refurbished and a bicycle trail built within the 100-foot right of way.

Go for the roundest of estimates — to upgrade the track for higher speeds, buy rolling stock, anticipate environmental considerations and build a bike trail — and the number bumps up against $250 million, beyond the purchase price. Big numbers until they are put beside the cost of new highway lanes.

In the spirit of blue-sky conceptualizing, the money comes from a mix of public and private sources. Maybe the stations are built by cities via local improvement districts. Enthusiasm is already burbling in Kirkland with talk of a mini-software park. Bellevue is not immune from dreaming about transit-oriented development.

A former BNSF manager judges the track is in need of updates, but wholly amenable to refurbishing by an industry darling known as a P811. The machine tidies up the bed, installs new concrete ties and lays down lengths of welded rail at the optimistic rate of a mile a day. A smooth ride, but, alas, no more clicketyclack.

Even the rail cars touted by the Discovery Institute's think tank are a marvel of, well, intelligent design. Rather than locomotive-hauled coaches, they are self-contained, self-propelled diesel units: single-level or double-decker, typically only one or two cars per train.

Existing technology rediscovered and rejuvenated by manufacturers in Colorado and Switzerland will equip Portland's metropolitan transportation agency, Tri-Met, and Capital MetroRail of Austin, Texas, respectively. Both plan to launch new commuter lines this fall.

Tri-Met's commuter trains will tie a half-dozen suburban communities and dozens of bus lines into MAX, the region's light-rail system. Portland & Western Railroad will operate the commuter trains, and continue to use the freight line for commercial hauling.

Austin will link its new commuter rail with a new 6.5-mile circulator system — think South Lake Union streetcar — that connects to the University of Texas.

Puget Sound can rest assured it is in no danger of breaking new ground on virtually anything to do with transit and commuter options.

Do not forget the trail in Eastside rail and trail. The Cascade Bicycle Club is confident its needs — approximately 23 feet for a paved path, two shoulders, a buffer and vertical barrier — can happily coexist with a commuter line in the broad right of way. The club has specific legal concerns about language and process in federal statutes to protect the public's access to the corridor. Embrace the cyclists as vigilant allies.

Sort out the rail details and pin down the costs. Credible answers deserve consideration. And start the bike path fast. No waiting for the train.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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