All over the region, undeveloped open spaces face enormous pressure. In Kirkland, the pressure for more mass transit is butting up against green space that filled a spiritual need some Kirkland residents didn’t even know they had.
The Cross Kirkland Corridor, a quiet gravel path through the woods, is just one leg of a much longer transit corridor that stretches all the way from Woodinville to Renton and connects communities all up and down the east side of Lake Washington. It leads them all to the light rail station being built in Bellevue.
The trail was always intended to be temporary until mass transit was put in, according to Kirkland City Councilmember Penny Sweet. So she and others on the council were surprised when more than 2,000 residents petitioned to keep transit off the trail.
“It’s only been a trail for 13 months. And you would think it was a birthright,” Sweet said. If it were permanent, it’d be asphalt instead of gravel. But she said maybe the council could have been a little more clear about that.
“We made a little mistake,” she says, “and the little mistake was moving forward as quickly as we could.” Kirkland built the trail, but didn’t talk enough (apparently) about the transit that would come later.
“So, ‘Save Our Trails’ happened,” she said, “and, you know, God bless them. I see the concern.”
Kirkland resident Jan Young is one of those fighting to save the trail. She has been taking care of her aging mother who has health problems. Young uses the trail to relieve stress.
“It was great to just come here out on the trail and just go for a long walk to just clear my head and kind of start thinking of big picture,” Young said. She said the trail would be a lot less calm if there were buses on it.
To the side of the trail there are shallow ditches running with late winter rain. The water gathers in streams, some of which bear salmon before feeding lake Washington.
Shawn Etchevers has fallen in love with a little wetland just to the side of the trail. He’s spent hours restoring this place, rooting out blackberries, planting natives. “There was nothing before,” he says. “Now you see little ducks, birds.”
Etchevers said this sensitive landscape is no place for buses or trains. “You see it’s going to effect all the water, right?”
It’s simple geometry, he said. The current trail is 10 feet wide. A couple of lanes for bus rapid transit would be at least twice that. “And then there’s a buffer zone, so it’s going come somewhere in there, and then – it’s going to screw everything up!”
Young said when she learned they were even considering putting mass transit on the trail, she was shocked because they had spent so much money to make the trail nice.
Young started asking around, and discovered her neighbors were just as surprised as she was. “So that’s when I started looking into it and decided I needed to try to do something,” Young said.
But transit has been part of the plan for a long time now.
Sure, there was a time when people thought of it as just a trail. “Initially, it was termed the ‘granddaddy of all trails,’” said former King County Councilmember Larry Phillips.
Phillips was on the King County Council when the Burlington Northern railroad put its old railway line on the market around ten years ago. He says it didn’t take long to realize the corridor presented a once in a lifetime opportunity.
When you look at the seven cities on the east side and their tremendous growth rates, Phillips said, it’s really a second economic engine for the state of Washington. Phillips said for the corridor to be used exclusively as a trail just didn’t make sense.
For one thing, King County couldn’t afford the ribbon of land alone. A coalition of governments, agencies and utilities all chipped in. The city of Kirkland bought its section of the trail. But it was Sound Transit’s big, early investment that really got things started. Today, the agency owns an easement up and down the corridor.
And the relationship between transit and trails is clearly intended as a partnership.
“I think overall, what we’re going to see with the corridor is an evolution of how people relate to it,” said David St. John, a project manager with King County Parks.
Before he took on the project, Eastside residents sued over the trail. Many said the right to run a railroad past their backyards did not entitle the government to put a trail there, too.
Today, they’re fighting to protect that trail. St John says he expects a similar transformation after transit is added to the corridor.
“And what we’re going to see in the next decade or so is people turning around and really facing the corridor and engaging on it. And building community around it,” he said.
Sound Transit hasn’t firmed up its plans yet. It hasn’t decided whether to run transit along this trail or next to Interstate 405. It hasn’t decided on bus rapid transit or rail. But it’s thinking hard on those options now.
Which is where you come in. In April, Sound Transit will reach out to the public with surveys and public meetings. That’s when Kirkland residents – along with everybody else in the region – can help decide the future of the Eastside rail corridor.
Whatever comes out at the far end of that process will be part of the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure this fall.