The so-called “missing link” to the Burke-Gilman Trail will be delayed at least until 2022, after a judge ruled that Seattle lacks the authority to uproot a half-mile of Ballard Terminal Railroad tracks in the proposed corridor.
The finish line finally appeared close after two decades of planning and legal struggles to build the $26 million project. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) even said online it would construct the project along Shilshole Avenue Northwest in 2020.
Waterfront industries argued that a trail would create dangerous encounters between trucks and recreating families.
But now the city says construction must wait until late 2021 or early 2022 — or longer if SDOT loses a planned appeal of the June ruling. The city will also postpone finishing touches on a segment farther west near the National Nordic Museum, where blacktop for a future trail section was installed this spring during a street rebuild.
“We will continue to pursue resolution through the courts, rather than compromising public safety with an inferior alternative route,” said a statement from SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson.
That means SDOT won’t seek to move the trail to Ballard Avenue or Leary Way Northwest. The Shilshole path is fully designed and would provide a more direct shot to Fremont and downtown.
Last month’s ruling, by Judge Averil Rothrock in King County Superior Court, is based on a tradition of legal protections for railroads since the 19th century, when Congress parceled out land to promote cross-country trade.
In a complex latter-day deal, the city acquired the short Ballard spur and granted a 30-year franchise to the small rail company in 1997. It’s used to deliver material to Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel, via a connection to the BNSF Railway north of the Ballard Locks.
“The city can’t touch the railroad,” said Josh Brower, attorney for the railroad and an industrial coalition. “This should be the end of the road, unless the city wants to continue wasting millions of dollars in taxpayer money on more misguided plans and losing legal arguments.”
SDOT spent $250,000 on outside lawyers, Brower said, and several million dollars developing the current design plans.
The design calls for moving tracks several feet to build a short trail segment between the rail path and parked trains, and for trains to operate in a car-traffic lane for three blocks of Northwest 45th Street, changes Brower called unsafe.
SDOT scheduled construction in 2012 but has been delayed since then by litigation, the city says.
The Cascade Bicycle Club has long supported the Shilshole route, citing 77% support by commenters in environmental studies. The club also points to frequent bike crashes on Shilshole and 45th — including an average of two emergency responses per month — as reasons to complete the trail.
“We want the safe trail. The Shilshole route is the one that has the fewest crossings, the fewest interactions with vehicles,” said Vicky Clarke, Cascade’s policy director. She said the court decision “seems pretty meaningless.” It merely assigns power over trackway changes to a national board, instead of SDOT, in her view. “The meaning is delay,” she said.
Brower said the largest driveway off Shilshole can serve as many as 300 concrete mixers and other trucks on busy days. Warren Aakervik, retired president of nearby Ballard Oil, keeps a collection of photo simulations to show how easily pedestrians can disappear in a trucker’s blind spot.
“They’re further away from getting a trail than they’ve been in 16 years. They’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing,” said Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association, which supports the legal fight. “They’re just wasting tons of taxpayer money.”
Leary Way is a better route, he said.
SDOT spent $2.75 million to complete an environmental-impact statement for the Shilshole route, one motivation to stay the course. The total budget calls for an additional $26.4 million, to include associated utility and street construction.
While the Ballard missing link stalls, King County and Eastside cities are extending new trails, including some bridges above traffic in Factoria, downtown Bellevue and Totem Lake. Seattle itself pedals forward with other bikeways, such as this summer’s protected lane on Bell Street and design work for a protected bike lane on East Marginal Way South from the West Seattle Bridge to the sports stadiums.
A decade ago, suburban Kenmore built a Burke-Gilman Trail underpass for about $5 million — an option not considered by SDOT, to separate concrete trucks from cyclists.
“We’re willing to talk about it,” Wasserman said.