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Originally published May 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 25, 2007 at 9:42 AM

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Guest columnist

Land swap not ideal way to acquire Eastside corridor

It is undoubtedly in the Puget Sound region's best interest to publicly acquire the Eastside rail corridor paralleling Interstate 405 and...

Special to The Times

It is undoubtedly in the Puget Sound region's best interest to publicly acquire the Eastside rail corridor paralleling Interstate 405 and currently owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). It's an asset that, like King County International Airport (Boeing Field), meets a critical need in our region and that, if lost, would be irreplaceable.

Transferring Boeing Field to the Port of Seattle in a trade is not a logical way to acquire the rail corridor. For many reasons, the swap is a bad deal for both King County and the Port of Seattle.

As an alternative, I recently proposed to the Sound Transit board that because of the agency's interest in future high-capacity transit service in the 405 corridor, Sound Transit has an interest in helping preserve the rail right of way. Sound Transit's future expansion package — ST2 — now contains a study of high-capacity transit on the BNSF corridor as well as language that could allow funding to go toward purchasing the corridor.

Sound Transit is not the only jurisdiction with an interest in securing public ownership of this right of way. The state of Washington, the federal government, the Port of Seattle, King County, Snohomish County, and the seven cities along the route all stand to benefit from preserving the corridor. What if all of these jurisdictions came together in a funding partnership to purchase the corridor? Split among all these stakeholders, the $103 million acquisition cost becomes manageable.

Another alternative is for the Port of Seattle to purchase the corridor outright. The Port has little interest in owning and operating a general-purpose airport like Boeing Field. Its interest is in commercial air transport, shipping and freight mobility. The Eastside rail corridor has potential freight-mobility advantages for the Port.

The Port also has a keen interest in another component of the rail-corridor acquisition — King County's cooperation securing rail improvements to Stampede Pass. The Port could then allow King County to develop a trail on the right of way alongside the rail line. King County could retain Boeing Field.

It's time to discard the Boeing Field swap proposal and concentrate on developing these, or other, alternative acquisition strategies. Taking a detailed look at the comparative values of the two assets shows that they are not an equitable trade.

A recent appraisal initiated by King County indicated that the value of Boeing Field is $174 million. At first glance, the $174 million appraised value of Boeing Field seems to line up fairly with the $169 million cost to purchase the rail corridor plus develop a trail.

Just as the new appraisal surfaced, however, the King County assessor updated Boeing Field's 2007 assessed real-estate value to $532 million. That's an increase of nearly $100 million from Boeing Field's 2006 assessed value.

What accounts for the enormous discrepancy between these two assessed values for Boeing Field? It's not an apples-to-apples comparison. The $174 million appraisal is based on the income Boeing Field generates. The $532 million appraisal is based on the value of Boeing Field's land and improvements.

Using the same exercise, let's re-examine the fairness of equating the $174 million value of Boeing Field to the $169 million value of the Eastside rail corridor and trail. Once again, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. The $169 million value of the Eastside rail corridor is derived from the cost to purchase and improve the real property. The comparable assessment for Boeing Field is the $532 million figure. If we were to appraise the rail corridor and trail based on the income they generate, the appraised value would be less than zero.

BNSF is selling the rail corridor because it is no longer profitable for it. Public transportation corridors and particularly public trails require subsidies to operate and maintain.

Rather than using smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of an equitable trade, the ideal scenario is this: King County keeps the airport we have a proven track record operating and the Port of Seattle has little interest in acquiring; and the region moves swiftly to acquire the rail corridor from BNSF either through a funding partnership or an outright purchase by the Port of Seattle.

Future generations will thank us for our ingenuity as they ride their bikes or take the train through the booming cities on the Eastside.

Larry Phillips is a member of the Metropolitan King County Council and the Sound Transit board.

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