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Washington rail-to-trail momentum chugging along

By Kate Riley
Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The hostility of some folks toward the East Lake Sammamish Interim Trail notwithstanding, the Seattle area is a well-established leader in creating trails out of former railroad beds — kind of urban escape tunnels often under tree canopies with water views.

With 578 miles of rail-trails, Washington ranks fifth among all states. Keith Laughlin, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, says Washington is especially distinguished because most of those trails are in population-dense areas so public use is greater.

"This region is in the forefront nationally of creating a regional trail system," said Laughlin, in town recently for a celebration, albeit an awkward one, of the East Lake Sammamish Trail's two finished ends in Redmond and Issaquah. "Once you've got that kind of mileage down, people start to become very aware of the potential of linking them together."

Think of the link that finally united the Burke-Gilman and the Sammamish River trails. Now, Bothell and Mill Creek officials envision the proposed North Creek Trail linking the Burke-Gilman/Sammamish River trail with the Interurban Trail, promising a route from Seattle to Everett.

Even on the East Lake Sammamish Interim Trail, the political will for the trail is building and legal obstacles seem to be falling. Last month, King County, which has envisioned an 11-mile trail, staged a two-phase opening of the two fragments. The ends, totaling about 3.5 miles, are separated by locked gates from the 7 miles of the would-be trail stretching through Sammamish.

The city of Sammamish, newly incorporated in 1999, had issued an environmental permit for the trail, but property owners who didn't want the proposed trail cutting across their land fought it. Remember, the County Council embraced the proposed trail concept in its 1971 country trails plan and, up until 1996, trains were running across that line.

A hearing examiner overturned the permit last year, siding with property owners who said the city should have considered an alternate plan that steered the trail off the railbed and nearer a road. But a Snohomish County Superior Court ruling last week might help direct the proposed East Lake Sammamish Trail back onto the railroad track bed. Judge Larry McKeeman sent the case back to the hearing examiner.

County officials say the judge's decision bolsters their argument that the interim nature of the trail permit did not make it necessary for the city to consider the property owner-backed route, which would require costly land acquisition and other improvements. The county already owns the railbed right of way and wants the public to have access while it works on the trail's permanent master plan.

While not a complete county victory, the judge's ruling is just the latest bit of good news for the trail's chances. Although Sammamish issued the permit, the topic was a source of tension among council members, some sympathetic to the anti-trail folks.

Things have changed dramatically. A slate of anti-railbed candidates was defeated in the election in favor of an incumbent and two new members who favor it. Mayor Kathy Huckabay says she wants the Sammamish portion open as soon as possible. She and others are considering changing the city code to pose fewer obstacles to the trail following the railbed.

On the federal level, work still remains to ensure there's funding of the permanent trail.

The conservancy and others are lobbying Congress hard for the reauthorization of a 13-year-old federal program that injected considerations of alternative transportation into federal spending. A portion of that program has invested about $2.4 billion in transportation enhancements, such as bicycle and pedestrian trails, historic preservation and environmental mitigation. These federal investments provide about 80 percent of project costs, requiring a 20-percent local match.

The current authorization bill, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), was set to expire Sept. 30, but after two extensions, will expire April 30.

A bill has passed the Senate, but the Bush administration has signaled it won't go along with the level of spending. Next week, the House subcommittee is expected to craft a new proposal more palatable to the White House.

Laughlin is optimistic a compromise will be crafted that will continue investments like the one that will help King County finish the East Lake Sammamish Trail.

The value of this program, especially in terms of adding a touch of nature and recreation snaking through the populous Puget Sound region, continues to prove itself.