By Kate Riley
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
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
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.