Completion of the East Lake Sammamish Trail has been delayed by a legal dispute between King County, which owns the former railroad corridor, and the city of Sammamish, which says it should be able to regulate its streets where they cross the trail.
Four stop signs, at two streets in Sammamish, are holding up the long-anticipated completion of the 11-mile East Lake Sammamish Trail. Trail advocates hope the second-to-last segment of the bicycle, jogging and walking trail can still be finished by December.
Paving on the 1.3-mile segment halted this spring when the city of Sammamish issued “stop work orders” on King County’s contractors over the placement of the stop signs. The county sued the city, arguing it had authority to decide issues along the right of way.
The county argues the streets in question, which provide vehicle access to several dozen lakefront homes, are lightly traveled and that cars should stop for the cyclists and pedestrians on the trail.
The city says there isn’t a safe stopping distance at the two intersections and wants the people on the trail to stop for the cars.
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Both sides say their paramount concern is safety.
“The bottom line is, we want a safe trail for both our community and the region,” said Sammamish City Manager Lyman Howard.
Earlier this month, a federal-district court judge in Seattle ruled in favor of the county, saying its purchase of the former railroad corridor gives it permitting authority over the trail. Judge John Coughenour ordered the city to take no further actions to impede or delay King County’s construction of the trail.
He ruled that the county’s property rights “are superior to any limited crossing rights held by the city.”
The city says the ruling will place “ominous limits” on its ability to protect public safety, preserve the environment and properly manage its roads. It plans to appeal the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Reading the decision, you could conclude that the county has the right to do whatever it wants,” Howard said. “Our whole system of government is built on checks and balances. The city should regulate its streets and the county should regulate its trail. As things stand now, a judge has said that the county can regulate city streets.”
The Sammamish stretch of the East Lake Sammamish Trail is currently the missing link in a 44-mile route that bicycle advocates call the Locks to Lakes Corridor. It will connect Ballard to Issaquah and the Cascade foothills.
“Completion of the East Lake Sammamish Trail has been a long-term priority,” said Vicky Clarke, East King County policy manager for the Cascade Bicycle Club. She said the issue of where stop signs are placed is important because it creates continuity and predictability for trail users.
She called the court decision in favor of the county “a step in the right direction for completing the trail.”
King County purchased the corridor along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish in 1998 and spent the next five years conducting public outreach and planning, said Kevin Brown, director of the parks division of the King County Department of Natural Resources.
Several lawsuits over conversion of the rail corridor to a trail followed. The county, and pro-trail advocates, prevailed.
In 2011 the Redmond segment opened as the first paved stretch. In 2013, the Issaquah section was completed. Brown said the project had “tremendous support” in both cities and no disputes about where stop signs should be placed.
Four years later, the county is still trying to finish paving the nearly 7.4-mile stretch through Sammamish. A 2.6-mile section in north Sammamish was completed in 2016.
Brown said county staff spent the first six months of 2017 trying to work out the dispute over the stop signs and only took legal action in June when it became clear that the project would be delayed.
He said county engineers recommended placing the stop signs on the street, facing oncoming traffic, rather than the trail, because of the relatively small number of homeowners who cross the intersection, versus the number of people expected to use the trail.
“We anticipate thousands of pedestrians and bicyclists using the trail,” Brown said.
Sammamish officials don’t dispute King County’s right to build the trail. But they disagree with its engineering assessment of sight lines and safe stopping distance. Steve Leniszewski, public works director for Sammamish and a professional engineer, said there are about two car-lengths of roadway for traffic turning off East Lake Sammamish Parkway before crossing the trail at the two intersections, on 206th Avenue Southeast and Southeast 33rd Street.
He said cars stopping for trail traffic would back up onto the busy, two-lane parkway, creating unsafe traffic conditions. Approaching in the other direction, from the lakefront homes, he noted that the road curves just before the trail crossing, limiting the sightline and the distance a car has to stop.
City Manager Howard said Sammamish attorneys are now seeking clarification from the judge about whether his ruling means Sammamish must give up all permitting authority for the final 3.5-mile segment. He said the judge based his decision on the property rights of an active railroad and said the owner may use the corridor “for any and all purposes whatsoever.”
“Are they a railroad?” Howard asked. “Do we completely lose our ability to regulate our city streets? We want a balanced approach.”
County officials say they hope to award a construction contract for the final 3.6-mile trail segment in 2018 and complete work in 2020.