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Cascade: Support the city’s Ballard Missing Link construction permit

Proposed cross-section of the NW 45th Street section.
Concept design from SDOT.

Seattle has applied for a permit needed to construct the simplified Burke-Gilman Trail Missing Link in Ballard, and you know what that means. It’s time to submit yet another comment supporting the completion of this long, long, long, long delayed trail.

Cascade Bicycle Club has created a handy online form you can use to send your comment of support to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection. You have until Friday (May 20) to comment.

As we reported in November, Seattle changed its strategy for completing the Missing Link. By simplifying the project to focus on completing a safe and complete trail, the city hopes to bypass many of the legal hurdles that have long stymied SDOT’s efforts to finish this project while also keeping it within its existing budget and completing it before the end of the Move Seattle Levy. Voters approved that levy in 2015, and completing the Burke-Gilman Trail in Ballard was a popular highlight of the proposal.

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There really isn’t much left to have a public debate about. The city has conducted exhaustive public outreach on this project in recent decades, and the response is always overwhelming: “Just build the trail already!” The only thing left is for the appellant group to finally run out of legal maneuvers to delay it further.

Under Mayor Ed Murray, the city tried to appease appellants by putting a large budget into the project, proposing a major rebuild of much of the roadway. The price tag for the project increased dramatically, much of which would have gone to elements that weren’t even part of the trail. However, even after a long stakeholder process to develop the high-budget design, appellants sued to stop the project anyway. After years of court battles, the appellants won a surprise, long shot decision based on a technicality that had nothing to do with SDOT or the design of the trail.

A separate legal action by the Ballard Terminal Railroad also challenged the city’s ability to realign the rarely-used railroad tracks, a key part of the design. Those tracks have caused an enormous number of injuries in the decades that this trail project has been on hold, and a group of injured bike riders recently filed a lawsuit against the city and the Ballard Terminal Railroad alleging that they failed to maintain the street “in a condition that is reasonably safe for ordinary travel.”

Facing a restart of the court battle over the project’s massive and exhaustive environmental impact statement (again, we are talking about a biking and walking trail here), the city decided in 2021 to change course. By refocusing on completing the trail and cutting much of the required paving, they were able to create a design that SDOT says is exempt from the State Environmental Policy Act (“SEPA”) review process. The new design also does not require the city to move and rebuild the railroad on NW 45th Street, hopefully bypassing the railroad’s legal challenge while also dramatically reducing the cost and scope of the project. The primary trade-off is that the street will remain one-way for general traffic instead of reopening to two-way traffic as was the original plan. If any area business is upset by this, they can send their complaints to the Ballard Terminal Railroad.

The project’s appellants will try to use every possible legal maneuver they can to further delay this trail. That’s why Cascade is seeking comment on this permit. Meanwhile, the appellant group’s complaint that the project should not be exempt from SEPA is still working its way through King County Superior Court. Cascade is intervening on the city’s behalf as they have in previous court cases, so feel free to kick them some bucks to help with legal fees. UPDATE: Cascade’s request to intervene has been granted.

If the project finally manages to clear its legal challenges this time, construction could begin in 2023.

From Vicky Clarke, Cascade’s Policy Director:

The city’s new plan to complete the Burke-Gilman Missing Link has reached its first milestone: a permit to build part of the trail in a common industrial area.

But deep-pocketed special interests take every opportunity to delay completion of the trail along the preferred route of Shilshole Ave.

The city’s new design narrows the footprint of the trail to sidestep legal challenges. Their permit to build a part of the trail in a Shoreline Industrial Zone is a common strategy used on Alki, Elliott Bay, and other trails. It shouldn’t be controversial – but opponents are gearing up.

It’s time for all of us to speak out and let the city know we support moving forward to complete the Burke-Gilman Missing Link, once and for all.

This kind of permit isn’t new – the city has received the Shoreline Industrial Zone permit before, for many prior trail designs.

But opposition sees this permit as a chance to delay the trail’s completion along the most safe, simple, and direct trail route with yet another legal challenge. We can’t give opponents free rein to write the narrative that the BGT doesn’t belong on Shilshole.

It’s beyond time to connect the Burke-Gilman Missing Link. We have until May 20 to give feedback on our support of this permit, a first step in the process to finally complete this beloved trail. Add your voice now.

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