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Originally published July 10, 2010 at 10:07 PM | Page modified July 12, 2010 at 10:39 AM

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A turf war over the Burke-Gilman Trail's missing link becomes a standoff

The Burke-Gilman Trail is the pride of Seattle, a 14-mile stretch of tree-lined blacktop that serves both recreational users and commuters on bikes and on foot. But a "missing link" of it has developed into one of the city's longest-running political feuds. Cyclists and industrial businesses are pitted against each other over the stretch of turf that would complete the trail to the edge of Puget Sound at Golden Gardens Park. The businesses say the trail will endanger cyclists in the path of their heavy trucks, while cyclists say the proposed route is actually the safest and most direct.

FOR 14 MILES, the Burke-Gilman Trail stretches from the north end of Lake Washington to Ballard, a blacktop strand of Seattle's modern identity.

But something strange happens when the trail gets to the Fred Meyer store at Salmon Bay.

It goes missing for nearly a mile and a half. And here begins the city's longest-running dispute — a stalled transportation project that makes the Alaskan Way Viaduct hand-wringing marathon look like a rush job.

At this vanishing point, bewildered cyclists are dumped on to a narrow street veined with railroad tracks. Cross the tracks at the wrong angle and you might be thrown for a bone-breaking crash. Survive that stretch, and next up is a straightaway on Shilshole Avenue Northwest with a shoulder the width of a laptop and 36-ton cement trucks bearing down on you. After that, it's unclear how to go west to the Hiram Chittenden Locks, where the trail resumes and rolls on to the beach and worthy mountain views at Golden Gardens Park.

For 15 years trail-users and industrialists have brawled over what to do about the "missing link."

Companies near the trail worry that one of their ship-fueling, gravel-toting trucks will hit a cyclist, driving up their insurance costs and putting them out of business. Trail advocates — and city officials — insist that bikes and trucks can safely coexist.

Bearing grudges like rival gangs, neither side is willing to listen to the other, never mind retreat an inch. And it's anybody's guess how long the conflict will drag on. A lawsuit filed by Ballard business owners has forced the city to churn out another batch of impact studies. Court appeals may follow.

Here in huggy, inclusive Seattle, the missing link has become a big stink.

Online comments to recent Seattle Times stories about the trail offer a taste of the feud's flavor. Industry folks are "lying neo-fascists" and "old farts" intent on the "bushification" of Ballard. Trail advocates are "spandex-clad Nazis," thinking with their "gonads," trying to "tear down" Seattle's history.

The Burke-Gilman makes you proud of Seattle. The debate over this last little bit of it leaves you shaking your head.

THOMAS BURKE and Daniel Gilman set out with a plan in 1885 as grand as their mustaches. The two lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs rounded up 10 investors to build a new railroad. It would link Ballard, "the shingle capital of the world," to Canadian transcontinental trains and cities of the East. Burke, Gilman and gang never made tracks past Arlington. But they did run a regional logging line that was gobbled up by Northern Pacific and eventually abandoned in 1971.

The city of Seattle bought the property and started tearing up ties and rails. By 1978 a paved multiuse path was completed from Kenmore to Wallingford's Gas Works Park. Short sections have since been built with the goal of ultimately connecting the trail to Golden Gardens. Mostly, the trail traverses lakeside neighborhoods, crossing few streets and offering cyclists and pedestrians a tranquil, tree-lined route for recreation and commuting. But the missing link remains untouched and unsolved. Bickering over it dates back to at least 1996, when more than 300 people showed up at Ballard's Nordic Heritage Museum to stake out many of the same arguments heard today.

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City leaders in 2003 finally took a stand. After studying several proposed routes, Mayor Greg Nickels recommended the "green line" route. Favored by cyclists, it was the flattest and most direct — the one that hewed closest to the tracks. Voting 7-2, the City Council agreed.

Though they appeared to be clear winners, trail advocates say the approved route is already a compromise. It would divert the trail away from the tracks just west of the Ballard Bridge onto historic Ballard Avenue Northwest for several blocks and eventually back to Shilshole.

Here the trail would take its most controversial path — running along the old tracks next to steep driveways that dip down to Ballard Oil. From the tracks, the 73-year-old company looks like a few derelict buildings. From the water, though, the company services the thirsty Alaskan fishing fleet, slaking it with 8 million gallons of fuel a year — all from a steady stream of 40-foot-long tanker trucks.

The cost of finishing the missing segment is $14 million, money city officials say they have. Construction would've started last summer if not for that lawsuit, filed by Ballard Oil as well as Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel, the North Seattle Industrial Association and the Ballard Chamber of Commerce.

King County Superior Court Judge Jim Rogers' order for extra impact studies put construction on hold until the work is done, sometime this fall. In the meantime, tempers continue to flare, and mistrust festers.

ON A MORNING tugboat tour of Ballard's waterfront industries, it's apparent the missing-link conflict is about more than insurance costs to some business leaders. Warren Aakervik, Ric Shrewsbury, Brian Thomas and Eugene Wasserman are all quick to cite other pressures:

Condo-dwellers complain about shipyard noise. Environmental regulations add to their costs. (State regulators last year fined Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel $12,000 for spilling their material into the Lake Washington Ship Canal.) The feds want to close the Locks at night. City Hall has employed a bike coordinator but not anyone dedicated to the lucrative fishing fleet.

On top of that, change in Ballard has been swift and sweeping. Between 2000 and 2007, the average value of a single-family home more than doubled. In less than five years Ballard exceeded the city's 20-year goal of 1,000 new apartments and condos. Local institutions — including Sunset Bowl, Olsen's Scandinavian Foods and the Scandinavian Bakery — have folded.

"Dot-coms" are the biggest factor in the transition from lutefisk to laptops, from shingle mills to yoga studios, says Beth Williamson Miller, head of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce. Where blue-collar workers once dirtied their hands now stand a rock-climbing gym, Trader Joe's and an LA Fitness "Signature Club."

Above all, it seems, the old-school merchants left standing feel unappreciated. Aakervik owns Ballard Oil, where four generations of his family have worked. For 35 years he's been the master griller at Ballard's biggest civic bash, the Seafood Fest, sweating over an alderwood fire in the coveralls he also wears to City Hall. He thinks plenty of people would like to see his company go away.

"It's a culture clash," says Wasserman, head of the North Seattle Industrial Association. "If we were biotech firms they'd treat us differently because biotech looks like them" — and not like Aakervik with his walrus mustache and unkempt hair.

The business owners feel their clout waning, particularly in relation to the cyclists. "The Cascade Bicycle Club has the ability to marshal troops. That's what electeds respond to. We're diverse, and we only have so much time to devote" to politics, says Thomas, co-owner of Kvichak Marine Industries.

And don't get them started on the evangelical zeal of bloggers. "The enviros think we're all terrible," Wasserman says.

"I'm just a stupid Ballard boy" to them, says Aakervik.

"There's a sense of place, identity and ownership the macro-economy is changing," says Pete Lagerway, the city's former bike coordinator who recently retired. "It's heart-wrenching."

Business owners can't definitively prove the missing link will cripple them, says Thomas, a Seattle native whose company employs 120 workers to build everything from police boats to passenger ferries.

A former competitive sailor and a Cascade Bicycle Club member, Thomas knows some trail advocates will swear they don't want to hurt waterfront companies. "What they don't understand," he says, "is that it's death by a thousand cuts. No single decision will kill us. It's the combination over time."

Aakervik says, "Why risk it?" Since good blue-collar jobs are scarce, why not move the trail a few blocks north?

IN THEORY, Kevin Carrabine is what Old Ballard fears and loathes.

Carrabine hops on his bike by 6:45 most mornings and pedals to the University of Washington, where he works as a nurse practitioner. He's a founder of the Friends of Burke-Gilman Trail and for 15 years has been pushing the city to complete the missing link.

But Carrabine doesn't own any Lycra. He calls Aakervik a "pillar of the community" and cringes, he says, when he reads some blog comments about him.

There are bad actors on both sides, notes Carrabine, who's lived in Ballard 22 years. Last year when cyclist Kevin Black was killed in the neighborhood after colliding with a van, bloggers criticized cyclists just hours after the tragedy. And before the City Council vote in 2003, Ballard businessman Doug Dixon chained twisted bikes to street signs at two intersections along the route, a gesture Carrabine saw as "intimidating."

(The trail would run right in front of Dixon's business, Pacific Fishermen Shipyard & Electric, which has built a number of storied ships, including Jacques Cousteau's Calypso. Dixon insists that Carrabine misunderstood; the gesture was meant to "give them a realization of what happens when a bike is hit by a train or truck.")

It's inaccurate, Carrabine adds, to romantically frame the debate as old vs. new Seattle. Companies like Kvichak's moved next to the trail in Fremont after it was built, making them the newbies.

But what about Aakervik's argument that the trail could go a number of places, unlike his water-dependent business?

Other routes, like Northwest Market Street, would be more dangerous, Carrabine says. City studies agree the alternatives would have cyclists riding near more businesses, crossing more driveways, sharing the road with even more cars parking and opening doors.

And, many cyclists would still take the most flat, direct route anyway. The city might as well make it safe.

"We have a public obligation to go forward because there will be fewer crashes and it will be safer," Lagerway says. "If I believed it would take away blue-collar jobs then I wouldn't say we should do it."

Accident data doesn't add much clarity to the debate. In the past decade, Seattle police have recorded 16 bike-car collisions on the proposed missing-link route. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, 14 of those involved injuries, but no fatalities. The data does not specify who was injured and how badly. Nor does the data account for the many cases in which cyclists are injured but don't report that to city officials.

Cyclists believe they've sacrificed enough by detouring up Ballard Avenue. "Although we are not completely satisfied by the compromise, we agreed to abide by it," says David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club. "But the other side has stayed with roughly the same position."

Hiller, too, says he has "tremendous respect" for the marine industries. But their "poor-me thing," he says, has gone overboard. "These business owners are not the little guys. They're the property owners, the big guys."

It's flattering that they think the club is a political powerhouse, he says. It does count more than 12,000 members. But is the club driving change or merely reflecting it? "I think our organization is shaped as much by our region's values," Hiller says, "and it is a driver of change in that regard."

Mayor Mike McGinn also says nice things about the industries, and he wrote a forceful letter that helped Dixon's company get a $643,000 federal stimulus grant. But he wants to build the missing-link segment as proposed, saying, "It will be better for all users if we have a safe route there."

As for the "death-by-1,000-cuts" argument, McGinn echoes the sentiment that the city is in transition.

"Ballard is a different community than it was 10, 20 years ago. We're also making a transition in the transportation arena . . . Biking isn't just recreational. It's a way of getting around. I can assure it's not recreational for me."

IN HINDSIGHT, the chamber's Miller says, the city should've assigned the project to psychologists not urban planners. At this point, positions have hardened with resentment, she says. "There's been a lot of name-calling, which has resulted in defensiveness."

While it's tempting to conclude the feud will drone on indefinitely, some still are willing to give peace a chance.

Dr. Rayburn Lewis is one such dreamer. Executive director of Swedish Medical Center in Ballard, Lewis is a business leader who "totally respects" the waterfront industries. As a bike commuter from Leschi, he rides the trail, sees injured cyclists in his emergency room and believes there's a "public-health imperative" to complete the missing link.

With a foot in each camp, Lewis decided he might be able to soothe some bruised feelings and heal some of the hurt. "If this was a patient they'd still be in critical care," he says. "It is a sign of the times that people are not compromising. They're not compromising at the state and national level, and not at this level."

But he's not giving up. At a recent fundraising auction, he bought a ride for four on the Ballard Terminal Railroad. He hopes to bring together Chuck Ayers, head of the Cascade Bicycle Club, and Paul Nerdrum, owner of Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel, for a little détente on the train.

City Council President Richard Conlin is known for pursuing a peace-loving process. But even Conlin thinks this is one issue where "it is just not possible" to get to kumbaya. He says he has great respect for Lewis. "My advice is not to be too optimistic, but feel free to try."

Bob Young is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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