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Four years after freight trains last rumbled slowly through Bellevue and Kirkland, another milestone is approaching for the old Eastside Rail Corridor.

Kirkland is preparing to tear out nearly six miles of tracks to make way for a temporary gravel trail — a possible prelude to a longer, paved trail that eventually could be paired with a rail transit line.

If extended through the entire 42-mile rail corridor and connected to the existing Centennial Trail in Snohomish County, the trail would become a showcase biking and hiking thoroughfare linking cities on the Eastside from Woodinville to Renton.

But what’s an exciting step forward for trail advocates is a crushing disappointment for save-the-rails activists, who say there’s more life left in the 122-year-old rail line.

The rusting steel rails and decaying wooden ties in the segment through Kirkland could be torn out as early as April. When completed early next year, the trail will connect the South Kirkland Park and Ride with Google offices and Kirkland’s future economic center, Totem Lake.

It would be the biggest stretch of trail so far along the abandoned tracks.

Redmond already has torn out nearly four miles of track at the end of a spur that connects the city to Woodinville, and is building a downtown trail with a plaza, sculptures and colorful paving.

In Redmond, the first mile of new trail is to be completed later this year, with a second mile tentatively to be built next year.

Kirkland’s rails-to-trail project will create a new recreational opportunity in the heart of the Eastside’s second-largest city while severing a major segment of the old rail line.

City Manager Kurt Triplett ultimately foresees a trail network connecting Renton, Bellevue, Kirkland, Woodinville and Redmond with existing trails.

“I think when there is an interim trail and people see Kirkland is enjoying it with all these benefits — economic, health, environmental — people north and south will say, ‘We want to join that.’ I think it’s going to be a catalyst for action,” Triplett said

But with the corridor’s Balkanized ownership — divided among the Port of Seattle, King County, Sound Transit, Kirkland and Redmond — building a trail and eventually a transit line next to it will require close coordination.

All of the owners of the rail corridor have agreed to “dual use,” with some kind of transit use next to a biking and hiking trail.

But which use should come first has been the subject of continuing debate.

Dual use

Kirkland’s $3.6 million trail project has prompted a last-minute campaign by save-the-rails activists who say dual use should begin with reuse of the existing tracks for excursion and commuter trains and hauling construction spoils.

“This track was good enough to haul people on the Dinner Train and to haul expensive Boeing fuselages,” said Bruce Agnew, director of the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development.

“Anybody who says it’s deteriorated to a point where it’s got to be just thrown away doesn’t know anything about rail engineering,” Agnew said.

All Aboard Washington, the Snohomish City Council, the Cascadia Center and Eastside Community Rail have asked for what Agnew calls “a stay of execution” for the tracks.

Agnew proposes using the old rails on a temporary basis to haul spoils from an expected construction boom in downtown Bellevue and the Bel-Red Corridor.

“They don’t want any trains. They just want to pull the rail out, period,” said Doug Engle, managing director of Eastside Community Rail, which has a contract with the Port of Seattle to haul freight between Woodinville and Snohomish.

Eastside Community Rail is developing plans for an excursion train between Woodinville wine country and Snohomish antique malls and restaurants — and hopes to extend the operation to Bellevue and Kirkland.

That vision would require publicly funded upgrades to tracks and bridges between Snohomish and Bellevue, a cost Engle recently estimated at $5 million to $7 million. The rail company then would operate excursion trains and maintain the tracks with private funds.

The “Tasting Train” would generate jobs, repay the state through sales-tax revenues and help revitalize Kirkland’s rundown Totem Lake shopping district, Engle said.

But the Kirkland City Council has shown no interest in backing off from its commitment to replace the rails with a gravel trail.

No concrete plan

Triplett said he hasn’t seen a concrete plan from Engle and other defenders of the old tracks.

He said they are suggesting that public use of the corridor be delayed “while they figure out if we can find a way the public sector will subsidize a private use. And that private use is going to serve a fraction of the people who will use an interim trail.”

Triplett, who as county executive helped engineer the Port’s 2009 purchase of the rail corridor from BNSF Railway, envisions “a truly world class” trail with small parks and scenic overlooks.

City Councilmember Bob Sternoff said the trail might even bring more jobs — in the form of coffee shops, breweries or wineries, bicycle shops — than an excursion train would.

“This is owned by the public,” said trail proponent Chuck Ayers, executive director of Cascade Bicycle Club. “Let’s get public access to it so people can start enjoying it.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or