On the same track

On the same track

It’s not always clear who your friends are. From the outside, the various factions of the alternative transportation world appear to be pulling in the same direction, yet that often isn’t the case. Lately, bike and train advocates have been sparring over access to the precious rights of way owned by the railroads. Old rail beds, which traverse miles of urban and suburban land without interruption, have become instrumental in the spread of bike trails throughout the country. Given the unfortunate but steady demise of the railroads in this country, the conversion of “rails to trails” has always felt like an appropriate way to honor the legacy of trains in this country. It turns out that not all of the owners of defunct railroads are ready to give up the fight. While on my vacation, I discovered this fascinating story, along with some tasty Lost Coast beer and a captivatingly eccentric street fair, in Eureka, Calfornia, where we had stopped for the day to celebrate the 4th of July. Bicycle advocates in Humboldt County have grand plans to connect Eureka with Arcata, a neighboring town eight miles to the north, and a dormant rail track connecting the two cities seemed to be the perfect solution. An obscure state agency, it seems, has other plans for the railroad, which hasn’t been used in ten years and, as the article details, faces serious obstacles in any attempt to establish relevant rail service along this corridor. Even with logic seemingly in its favor, the distracting, time-consuming battle with the rail agency makes prospects for the trail bleak.

A similar battle is occurring outside of Seattle, only this time, a new trail will likely be the winner. A three way land purchase and swap between King County, the Port of Seattle and BNSF Railway will transfer ownership of a 42 mile rail corridor to King County, which will then tear out the tracks and place a paved trail in their place. Ironically, in this case, rail advocates seem to have a far more convincing case for maintaining the rail corridor than in Eureka. Seattle’s Eastside is crippled with congestion, including the suburb-to-suburb kind that is usually immune to fixed rail solutions. The coalition to save the tracks, which include local businesses, claims that private commuter rail service could be running in 60 days with an investment of only $30 million. Whether these claims are realistic and whether enough car-addicted Eastsiders would avail themselves of the service to ease congestion is unclear. For the time being, the corridor seems destined to become another link in Seattle’s growing trail network.

As a regular cyclist, I can attest to the benefits of a freshly paved trail insulated from car traffic. In Portland, we have the Springwater Corridor, a 21 mile trail connecting downtown with the far eastern edge of the metropolitan area. Covering that same distance on surface streets would be a frustrating and potentially hazardous experience. So anytime someone mentions the possibility of putting in another trail, I’m onboard. But we mustn’t forget the real reason why rail and trail advocates are forced onto opposing sides: we’re fighting for the scraps. We shouldn’t have to choose. Both sides should be rewarded for their energy and commitment to a more sustainable future. As an Eastside rail advocate points out, a slightly bigger piece of the massive transportation (translation: roads) budget would easily fund improvements in both our train and bicycle networks. We need to stop falling prey to the divide and conquer strategy employed by the pro-car establishment. The next time we’re asked to choose, the correct answer is: “sorry, but we want both.”

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