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Originally published Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 4:37 PM

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A Plan B for the Burke Gilman’s ‘missing link’

How did a group of crusty old Ballard blue-collar businessmen come to embrace the hot new thing bike policy, only to be ignored by the city? Editorial columnist Jonathan Martin explains.

Times editorial columnist

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The Ballard maritime industry’s unlikely embrace of state-of-the-art bike infrastructure began three years ago, with a proposition from their attorney: Give me something to fight for, rather than just fight against.

Josh Brower, on behalf of old Ballard businesses and trade groups, has fought for nearly a decade against the city of Seattle’s so-called “missing link” extension of the Burke-Gilman Trail, the gap between the Ballard Fred Meyer and the Ballard Locks.

The city’s $14 million fix would snake the trail through the industrial corridor of Shilshole Avenue Northwest, across 55 driveways and road intersections in 1½ miles, past fueling docks and a concrete company, whose trucks would drive over the trail 300 times a day.

As the maritime industry sees it, the potential bike-truck collisions would jeopardize its members’ insurance liability, effectively starting a countdown on the Ballard maritime industry, home to the Alaska fishing fleet and father of thousands of working-wage jobs.

“If they put it where they say they want it, people will have to die, and the maritime industry will have to be shut down,” said Warren Aakervik, whose family has owned Ballard Oil since 1937.

Hyperbolic, perhaps. But that belief persuaded crusty blue-collar businessmen to spend $75,000 on someone from the other team — a new urbanist architect from bike-loving Copenhagen — to come up with Plan B for the missing link.

“The standard message about us is that we’re anti-bike,” said Brower. “We wanted to show we’re anything but.”

Today, his clients are largely united behind the Dutch architect’s vision of connecting the missing link via cycle track — a dedicated, separated bike lane — on Leary Avenue Northwest and Northwest Market Street instead of Shilshole.

Cycle tracks are the hot thing in American bike policy. They’re safer than “sharrows” or painted bike lanes, and a feeling of safety induces more to bike.

The city loves them. It is finishing one on Linden Avenue North, and others are planned for the east side of Lake Union and on East Marginal Way South, where a cyclist was killed this month. They will be central to the 20-year Bike Master Plan, set to be released soon.

One cycle track not in that plan? The maritime industry’s Leary-Market proposal. What is in the plan? The Shil-­ shole path, the one that the industry says is its death knell.

This could be a “Kumbaya” moment. Bicycle advocates could get a win with a bicycle track in Ballard. Aakervik’s folks could feel like they’re not being shoved out. And the city, which is doing a court-ordered, $300,000 full review of the missing link, could spend that money instead making both happier.

Instead, bike advocates and city officials seem to be digging in their heels.

Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chair of the Transportation committee, said the city supports the $2 billion maritime industry, but he portrayed the industry’s concerns as standard-fare NIMBY-ism (aka not in my backyard).

“The Burke-Gilman has had to be argued and debated block by block from Seattle to Issaquah,” said Rasmussen. “Once it’s constructed, I don’t hear a lot of concerns.”

Craig Benjamin of Cascade Bicycle Club said he’d like both a cycle track and the Burke-Gilman on Shilshole.

But the maritime industry’s plan, he said, is a “red herring,” and its opposition to the Shilshole route drags out a fix for an unsafe gap. “They’re costing city taxpayers millions and millions, and causing people to injure themselves and essentially die,” said Benjamin.

If the city’s environmental review sticks with Shilshole, Brower says he’ll be back in court. I asked why we should believe the industry’s death-knell claim. “That’s a gamble. Once you lose this industry, you don’t get it back.”

Neither route is perfect, and both would require sacrifices from Ballard businesses. The Leary-Market route would likely cost a lane of traffic on Leary and parking on Market. The Shil-­ shole route would cost 100 parking spots or more. But the status quo, for 10 years, has been gridlock and an absurd, dangerous gap in the region’s crown jewel of recreational trails.

Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council and a biker, said the stalemate requires “the kind of compromises that political leaders have to forge.”

“I’m an old labor negotiator, and if everyone leaves the table kind of irate, that’s a good deal,” he said.

The maritime industry came three-quarters of the way — all the way back from Copenhagen — to a solution. And the city and bike advocates don’t seem willing to budge.

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is jmartin@seattletimes.com On Twitter @jmartin206


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