Call it the local land swap of the century — maybe. Under a deal many months in the making, the Port of Seattle would acquire Boeing...

Share story

Call it the local land swap of the century — maybe.

Under a deal many months in the making, the Port of Seattle would acquire Boeing Field from King County and in exchange would give the county a 47-mile Eastside rail corridor for recreational use.

It’s still just a concept.

It faces many hurdles: regulatory, financial, business and political.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

But King County Executive Ron Sims and Port of Seattle Chief Executive Mic Dinsmore presented it as a vital transaction at a news conference Wednesday that even surprised one of the county’s biggest private employers — Boeing, whose operations in both Renton and Boeing Field could feel the impact.

“This is by far the most ambitious initiative taken in a generation,” Sims said, putting the value of the land transfer at hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are several key pieces to the deal:

The Port would take over management of King County International Airport, a general- aviation hub also known as Boeing Field. The Port already owns and operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

In return, the Port would buy a key Renton-to-Everett line owned by BNSF Railway, and give it to the county, paying for creation of a recreational trail. That would create the largest greenway since the Mountains to Sound Greenway was set up in 1991 to protect forest views along Interstate 90, Sims said. But he said it’s not certain whether trains might still run on part of the corridor.

How the many-sided deal would work

• The Port of Seattle buys BNSF Railway’s 47-mile Eastside rail corridor, valued at $100 million to $180 million.

• The Port turns the corridor over to King County and also funds creation of a recreational trail on the corridor.

• King County turns over Boeing Field, whose value it estimates to be at least $200 million, to the Port of Seattle.

• The Port also gets some waterfront parcels to build a new rail yard, increasing efficiency at its cargo terminals.

• The BNSF rail line at Stampede Pass, currently a bottleneck for eastbound cargo trains, gets improved with $25 million in state money.

Source: King County, Port of Seattle

The Port also would gain some waterfront land where it could build a new rail yard, helping it become a stronger competitor to other West Coast ports that have been taking business from Seattle this year. The Port also would benefit from rail improvements to let double-stacked trains cross Stampede Pass in the Cascades on a track owned by BNSF between Seattle and Ellensburg, for which Gov. Christine Gregoire pledged $25 million in state funds.

The complex deal offers something for both the Port and county. Boeing Field is barely in the black after several money-losing years, so Sims may welcome the opportunity to swap it for a popular amenity. For the Port, the deal provides control of a potentially competing airport, and also results in long-sought rail improvements.

Sims and Dinsmore said they broached the swap idea last year, a month after another proposal to reshape Boeing Field was rejected. Southwest Airlines had proposed moving to Boeing Field to avoid high fees at Sea-Tac; the Port fought that idea vigorously.

In outlining the plan Wednesday, Dinsmore stressed its complexity and many obstacles.

Among them:

• Political approval. The ports of Seattle and Tacoma, the state, the King County Council, railroads and possibly the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies would need to sign off.

What the Port would get

Boeing Field and rail improvements on Seattle waterfront and at Stampede Pass

What King County would get

Trails on 47-mile Eastside rail corridor, which the Port would buy from BNSF Railway

What’s next?

A lengthy process of approvals and analyses of impact and cost

• Business impacts. Boeing uses the Eastside rail line to move fuselage pieces between Renton and Everett.

• Cost. Sims’ office estimates the airport is worth at least $200 million. The rail corridor to be acquired from BNSF Railway is valued at about $100 million to $180 million. Sims said the county otherwise would have had to raise taxes to buy the property.

“We haven’t even gone down the path to decide where the money comes from,” Dinsmore said.

Despite those concerns, the two leaders said they are determined to press ahead, and warned of dire consequences for Seattle’s Port and the region if the swap doesn’t happen.

“This concept agreement required everyone to give something up,” Sims said. And he added: “Speed is key.”

If the region doesn’t pursue this, Sims said, “We’ll see Long Beach [Calif.], L.A., Portland, San Francisco, Vancouver [B.C.] be the place to go because they were faster. This required breaking the mold.”

The Port, which has seen cargo volume fall this year as shippers route to Los Angeles and Long Beach, considers the deal vital to Seattle’s competitiveness.

“As you look at growth, what the constraint will be is rail capacity,” Dinsmore said.

The new rail yard would speed transfer of cargo containers from ships to trains. The Port already has such a yard, operated by BNSF.

And expanding Stampede Pass would allow rail companies to send double-stacked freight trains through.

At Boeing Field, some airplane-service businesses voiced fears that having the Port as their landlord would bring higher fees that would drive away jobs. “If they take the same approach at Boeing Field they take at Sea-Tac, it will be very detrimental to the area, because the costs here, if anything, should be lowered,” said Joe Clark, chief executive of Boeing Field-based Aviation Partners. The business develops winglets that make commercial jets more efficient.

Boeing is the biggest tenant at Boeing Field, leasing property at the airfield and delivering its 737 narrowbodies there. “Boeing will wait and see how the discussions between the Port of Seattle and King County develop,” said spokesman Peter Conte, who learned about the Boeing Field piece of the swap from a reporter.

As for the Eastside rail line, Boeing and BNSF have discussed an alternative rail route to bring the newest and largest 737 fuselages to the Renton plant, and BNSF has pledged the current track would remain open at least until the alternate route is available, he said.

The plan found some immediate political support. In a statement, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the plan “represents the kind of forward thinking that will help secure a brighter future for our region.”

Gregoire said the plan “anticipates future demands on our transportation system and will help to efficiently move our high-quality Washington agricultural products to the global market.”

But others were more skeptical. King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, R-Federal Way, said the plan “opened up a Pandora’s box of questions” about how the Boeing Field transfer would affect airspace from Magnolia to South King County.

Dinsmore said there are no plans to move commercial air service. “It would not be our intent to do anything different than what we so adamantly argued against last year,” when Southwest Airlines proposed moving to Boeing Field, he said. The Port could consider expanding service to Boeing Field when Sea-Tac hits capacity, but he doesn’t expect that to happen until 2020.

One Port commissioner said the cost and potential loss of the rail corridor appeared misguided. “It looks to me to be a very sad day for the future of transportation in King County, and a sad day for King County taxpayers, who are going to be paying more than they should for this right of way,” Port Commissioner Alec Fisken said. King County taxpayers pay about $60 million annually in property taxes to fund the Port.

“It’s certainly a creative idea,” said King County Councilman Bob Ferguson, D-Seattle, who chairs the capital-budget committee.

“But the bottom line is whether it’s a good deal for King County taxpayers.”

Times staff reporter Dominic Gates contributed to this report.

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.