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USA Today calls Burke-Gilman Trail ‘nation’s pride’ + Remembering the 1970s NIMBY fight against it

The USA Today published a list of the best urban trails in the nation last week. Near the top of their list is, of course, Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail. The paper describes it like this:

This former rail trail is a bike-obsessed city’s pride—and as far as urban bike paths go, arguably the nation’s. Its paved 27 miles begin on Puget Sound in North Seattle and trace the shoreline along the canal and up Lake Washington all the way to the town of Bothell. (A 1.5-mile gap in the Ballard neighborhood is the “missing link.”) One of the most heavily ridden multi-use paths in the country, it’s often called the “backbone” of Seattle’s cycling infrastructure, and its flat terrain, beautiful views, and plentiful access points invite casual cyclists and alley cat messengers alike.

Indeed, it’s rather hard to imagine Seattle without the Burke-Gilman. It’s not just a way that people get around, it’s a core part of the city’s identity. Which is why the following photo from a 1971 protest against the Burke-Gilman Trail is so amazing:

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Photo from MOHAI: Rally Against the Burke Gilman Trail, Seattle, 1971 Signs in image: Do the Hungry and Needy Really Want [...] Million Trail. [...] Woods [...] in My Yard. Not More Taxes. Who's Paying for This $10 Million Dream? We Don't Want It. Burke Gilman Trail. Enjoy But Who Pays? Who Pays for Upkeep. Photographer: Tom Barlet Image Date: 1971 Image Number:1986.5.55062.1 - See more at: http://www.mohai.org/explore/blog/item/2067-rally-against-the-burke-gilman-trail-seattle-1971#sthash.3mRtlXsn.dpuf
Photo from MOHAI: Rally Against the Burke Gilman Trail, Seattle, 1971 Signs in image: Do the Hungry and Needy Really Want […] Million Trail. […] Woods […] in My Yard. Not More Taxes. Who’s Paying for This $10 Million Dream? We Don’t Want It. Burke Gilman Trail. Enjoy But Who Pays? Who Pays for Upkeep. Photographer: Tom Barlet Image Date: 1971 Image Number:1986.5.55062.1 – See more at: http://www.mohai.org/explore/blog/item/2067-rally-against-the-burke-gilman-trail-seattle-1971#sthash.3mRtlXsn.dpuf
The photo above depicts a public, protest-filled debate over the Burke-Gilman Trail from September 12, 1971. While the Burke-Gilman Trail Park Committee and hundreds of supporters — including Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and King County Executive John D. Spellman — walked 11 miles of then railroad track calling for a trail, they held signs reading “A City for Persons to Grow,” “From Rails to Trails” and “Hike and Bike.”

Meanwhile, a group calling themselves the Citizens for Property Rights Committee held signs reading “Hike in the Woods, Not in My Yard,” “We Don’t Want the Trail,” and “Welcome Hell’s Angels” (though the Seattle Times reported September 13, 1971 that the sign’s author spelled it “Angles”).

One Lake Forest Park resident was against the trail because he wanted to buy the section of rail line near his house and turn it into a parking space for his car. He was also concerned about motorcyclists using the trail at night. By November of that year, fears had seemingly grown to include concerns that people would lose access to their homes and that people biking and hiking on the trail wold disturb the wildlife.

A survey conducted later that year would find that only 14 – 19 percent of residents living near the proposed trail opposed it.

By 1973, opposition to the trail had split into two groups: The Citizens for Responsible Planning (seemingly an outgrowth or splinter of the 1971 group) and a group that wanted to run a private steam train along the route (sounds familiar).

The CRP was spending a lot of money pursuing “every avenue available to block development” of the trial, according to an April 22, 1973 issue of the Seattle Times diving into “The Burke-Gilman Controversy.” This included an exhaustive look at land deeds and titles to try to find a donated section of land under the rails they could claim as well as citing parks rules that supposedly prohibited parks near homes. They even went as far as trying to bring in the state’s Shoreline Management Act to try to get the Olympia Legislature involved.

“It is commonly known that animal and birdlife can get along with trains or machines where it is completely incompatible with an invasion of humans which a hike-path will bring,” the group’s chairman W. H. Purdy said in the story.

Purdy also cited King County’s trail plan, which said a trail “should perform a transportation function that should serve schools, shopping areas … as well as provide access to places of work.” And, according to Purdy, “A bike-hike trail in this area does none of this.” He went on to call it “a trail to nowhere.”

It’s hard to be this wrong.

The train group wanted to “share” the trail with people biking and hiking, and called trail supporters “self centered monopolists.”

As discussions about the future of the Eastside Rail Corridor and legal challenges to completing the Burke-Gilman Missing Link continue, perhaps a good reflection on the importance of the Burke-Gilman Trail is in order. Will the Eastside community seize the moment and create something truly wonderful that ties neighborhoods together with a safe and healthy biking and walking trail? Will Missing Link opponents embrace the safe, loved and inspiring trail passing near their workplaces?

Which side of history do you want to be on?

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22 responses to “USA Today calls Burke-Gilman Trail ‘nation’s pride’ + Remembering the 1970s NIMBY fight against it”

  1. Gary

    “It’s hard to be this wrong.”

    Actually, it’s pretty easy. You can look back at all the bad ideas and often find that there is a self interest in promoting them even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    I’d like to see the Eastside trail as a bike trail. While it is a nice un-interupted piece of land for future rail, it’s not really in the right place for it, and has too many ungated crossings. Better to build an elevated Light Rail line over the freeway right of way, and vear off to the city centers and stops than run something that while hits downtown Renton, misses downtown Bellevue and downtown Kirkland….

    (Note that with a bicycle, all of those locations are within easy mileage if not good access of the trail.)

  2. Being this wrong, for this long, is even more impressive. Witness the undying “who pays?” meme.

    Thanks for this bit of historical perspective.

    1. Stuart Strand

      Sorry about the duplicate postings . I thought I was editing a previous post, but it all went hay-wire.

      Anyway, to answer the question about why appeals were abandoned, the best authorities would be at King County and Cascade bike club. So ask them. I suspect that the answer is that in the spring of 2009, at the height of the collapse, King County was exhausted in its defense of its right of way to a bike trial.

      1. Apparently it went even more haywire considering where this comment ended up, and considering I didn’t even think we had an edit function.

  3. Stuart Strand

    The NIMBY opposition to the BGT was alive and well in the 2000s when the county’s plan to improve the trail in Lake Forest Park and was fought bitterly by the majority on the LFP city council, with hundreds of thousands expended on lawyers and unnecessary engineering studies. The present mayor, Mary Jane Goss, led that battle against trail improvements.

    1. Too bad all the engineering studies didn’t include traffic studies indicating that all those yield signs telling cyclists to yield to people’s driveways should be turned around.

      1. Stuart Strand

        Actually the County’s engineering plan had stop signs facing the driveways. LFP hired engineers to write a report to recommend signing facing the bicyclists allowing the private property owners to ride across the trail without stopping and without worrying about liability. Goss led the effort to fund the alternative engineering study and the council with one exception funded the study and subsequent expensive litigation.

        In committee and court the County’s plan won on every point except in the final examiner’s decision in 2009, which the county decided not to appeal (with the support of Cascade bike club). So, now, yield signs face the cyclists, despite general flaunting of these laws by motorists and cyclist alike. To clarify: drivers yield and cyclist pause and continue through. But if there is ever an accident at one of these intersections, the cyclist will be deprived of his/her equal protection under the law by this anti bicycling decision.

      2. @Stuart: I didn’t know that. Why did Cascade support the decision not to appeal? The current layout is ludicrous.

      3. Tom Fucoloro

        There were a couple issues Cascade rolled over on at the end, I think just because the project needed to get out of the gate (another example is the lack of adequate detour or shuttling service, which you may remember too well…) I guess you could call it compromise.

  4. Gary

    Same claims by the folks along East Lake Sammamish, only took the county 10 years to clear the right-of-way and illegal fences. If that trail was finally paved it would make it easier to get from Issaquah to Microsoft where thousands of folks ride to work. (See Bike to Work Month stat’s on the number of teams signed up.)

  5. Southeasterner

    “Which is why the following photo from a 1971 protest against the Burke-Gilman Trail is so amazing”

    So amazing or so expected given the similar opposition TODAY to finishing the missing link of the trail in Ballard?

    1. Well, sure, except there isn’t a popular movement to stop the trail in Ballard, just a few businesses with lawyers. That’s mostly true for the eastside corridor, too.

  6. Doug Bostrom

    “(A 1.5-mile gap in the Ballard neighborhood is the “missing link.”)

    I suppose they have very thick hides but even so the present generation of gappers surely must find the USA Today article at least slightly cringe-worthy. National notoriety of the wrong kind…

  7. JAT

    I almost always take the cynical infrastructure agnostic perspective, BUT the Burke-Gilman Trail was absolutely fundamental to me becoming a cyclist. It truly is the backbone here, and I love it (for all its quirky flaws – illogically-facing traffic signs, occasional landslides, arbitrary speed limits, and chronic crowding at the University).

  8. It is not just the Eastside community that should seize the opportunity. With the current King County Proposition 1 Park Levy committing money for operations and maintenance on this Corridor, it is an opportunity for all in King County. I encourage everyone to be involved in the planning that is beginning now for this corridor. visit kingcounty.gov/erc for more info on planning.

  9. Jonathan

    I’m just so glad the trail supporters won out… we were lucky considering the “litigate it to death” strategy of today’s opponents. I can’t imagine doing the 16-mile trek to work on a bike if not for the BGT. It’s been a major plus for the allure and quality of life of this region for me. Actually I never tried the detour during the rebuild, so that was just down time for me. I’ve never understood why folks down there along the trail spend so much time hating it (and the 5-seconds they have to pause before crossing) when they could invest the same energy using it.

    1. But! But them darn bikes and their war on cars! We just want to live our obscenely rich lifestyles without ever having to confront anything remotely deviating from our artificial construction of reality by going everywhere in our six-figure cars without them plebes constantly going past our house!

  10. Andres Salomon

    The BGT is the reason I live in Seattle. The bus system here is simply not good enough, and the light rail network is decades away from being built-out enough to rely upon. I would still be living in Boston, or would have moved to Portland, Vancouver, or SF.

  11. jimmythefly

    I’d love to read current-day interview with any of the people involved with those protests back in the 1970s. do they still feel the same way? have their views changed much? How has the experience of protesting and being so very wrong influenced the way they see other current events (not necessarily bicycling related, even)?

    1. I doubt they see themselves as “wrong”, if they’ve even thought much about the whole thing since then; they probably didn’t even really believe most of their bogus justifications, not that they’d admit that. Probably they’re the same sorts of people who form the backbone of the Tea Party today. Still, I’d like to see an answer to that question in order to get into the general mindset of that sort of person.

  12. […] Apparently it’s one of the longest and most scenic urban trails in America.  Yet the Burke-Gilman Trail was strongly opposed at its inception, despite backing from both the city and county chief executives.  For an outstanding article on how the BGT was born, please go here. […]

  13. Scott Cummins

    For Hiking Merit Badge my dog Gretel & I walked ten-plus miles up the trail that opening day all the way to Lake Forest Park with Mayor Uhlman (his son was a classmate) and Executive Spellman up to Lake Forest Park – and then turned around and walked back to the UW to finish the 20 mile hike. No one else can say they did that on BG Day One!

    Today I ride the trail 10-15 times a year, and will again next Friday on the RSVP. The BG is essential transportation infrastructure for our region. I try to ride early (usually at 7 am and definitely before 10 am on weekends) to avoid the crowds. Its time to upgrade the BG in accord with that importance.

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