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Originally published Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Building trails, preserving rails

The first bicycle ever to set wheels in Washington came on Nov. 14, 1879 — carried on a barge from San Francisco. Until...

Special to The Times

The first bicycle ever to set wheels in Washington came on Nov. 14, 1879 — carried on a barge from San Francisco. Until then, nobody had ever seen a bicycle in the Washington Territory. A Seattle businessman sold the bicycle out of his store, located along First Avenue, to a man who bought it for his son.

The local paper at the time forecast the following: "Another season will find many bicycles here in active use."

Nearly 130 years later, King County boasts one of the most extensive and highly regarded trail systems in the nation. Our 175 miles of trails connect communities across King County. The system is used by thousands of commuters and recreational users every day. King County Metro sees 500,000 bike boardings every year and has expanded bus bike racks to meet the growing demand from those who use our trail and transit system.

This remarkable trail system did not come about by accident, but was developed because of leadership and decisive action on the part of individuals such as King County Executive Ron Sims and others. When we had the opportunity to dither and delay, we instead moved forward, made investments and secured public land before it was lost forever.

More than a century has passed since the first bike was ridden in our region, and we now face arguably the most significant opportunity to grow our popular trail system and expand the opportunities for people to commute and move around our region without a car.

In 2005, the BNSF Railway Co. signaled its intent to sell off its underused and unprofitable 42-mile rail corridor that stretches from Renton to Snohomish. This corridor, 100 feet wide in many places, traces the edge of Lake Washington, connecting urban centers and farmland. This is a unique and extensive corridor, the likes of which we may never see again in King County.

An advisory committee made up of government, business, civic and environmental stakeholders was assembled last year to study the issue and make informed recommendations on short- and long-term uses for the corridor.

Through nine months of study, we learned that the single-track rail corridor today handles little to no freight traffic between Woodinville and Renton and carries limited amounts of freight north of Woodinville to Snohomish. The single-track rail is in poor condition and not suitable for passenger service (including diesel multiple units) or increased freight use. Improvements to bring the single track up to standards could total several hundred million dollars or more, an investment inconsistent with our state's long-term freight-capacity needs.

Last month, the advisory committee made the following recommendations:

• The corridor be acquired for the public's use;

• A trail be constructed between Woodinville and Renton where no freight use exists today;

• The single-rail line between Woodinville and Snohomish be maintained to serve existing freight uses and that a trail be constructed alongside;

• The corridor be preserved for future public transit use, such as light rail;

• Passenger rail/public transit use be protected through the federal "rail banking" program.

If implemented, these recommendations would connect nearly a dozen existing King County trails, including the Interstate 90, East Lake Sammamish and Burke-Gilman trails, creating a seamless, countywide network. They would also preserve the opportunity to develop high-capacity transit parallel to a trail to serve the growing urban centers along the corridor.

Rails with trails are possible in our region. In fact, we have many examples in our own backyard, including Myrtle Edwards Park, where a trail and rail line exist side-by-side, and the Waterfront Streetcar line and trail along the Seattle waterfront.

And we know from experience that in order to secure valuable land for the public's benefit, we can't afford to dither and delay — we must act.

Julia Patterson is the vice chairwoman of the King County Council and served as chairwoman of the Puget Sound Regional Council's BNSF Corridor Advisory Committee.

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