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Seattle reaches agreement with railroad to pave over dangerous tracks under the Ballard Bridge

Photo from near the ground looking down a railroad track as someone bikes across. The Ballard Bridge is overhead.

In a surprise development in the long, injurious and frustrating history of the Ballard Missing Link of the Burke-Gilman Trail, Councilmember Dan Strauss announced Tuesday an agreement with the Ballard Terminal Railroad Company that should set the city up to pave over the rarely used tracks near and under the Ballard Bridge.

“This is a coming together moment,” said Strauss during Tuesday’s City Council meeting (starts around the 1:37 mark in this video). “Parties that typically disagree, we have found agreement here.” Because the city owns the land under the tracks and leases it to the railroad, a city ordinance is required in order to approve the transfer from the Ballard Terminal Railroad to another entity called the Meeker Southern Railroad, which the Ballard Terminal Railroad Company owns. The Council agreed unanimously to put the ordinance on an accelerated path in order to get it approved in time for crews to pour the asphalt before the end of the year. A final vote is scheduled for October 24.

A group of people who were injured while biking in this area sued the city and Ballard Terminal Railroad in 2022, and their settlement agreement led the city to make a confusing series of changes in early 2023 and commit to building a more complete rail crossing by the end of the year. Another group of injured people have since filed claims. This is part of the urgency in passing this ordinance. Though the city’s initial plan for a second phase of changes would have kept the rails in place, paving over the rails (and the recently-dug gravel pits) is a much better solution if that is an option.


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The full text of the ordinance is not yet posted on the Council’s calendar, but Strauss said it would authorize the SDOT Director “to approve the transfer of the railway franchise from the Ballard Terminal Railroad Company to the Meeker Southern Railroad.” He did not specify the begin and end points of the section to be abandoned or why transferring the railway franchise to a subsidiary is necessary.

Cascade Bicycle Club celebrated the news and urged the Council to approve the ordinance. “Cascade supports paving over the hazardous and dis-used railroad tracks that have caused countless crashes and injuries over the past two decades,” said Cascade Bicycle Club Executive Director Lee Lambert. “This would be a step forward in making this short section of the Missing Link safer. We’d like to thank SDOT and the Ballard Terminal Railroad for reaching an agreement to completely cover the railroad tracks to ensure people can safely bicycle through that area of Ballard. However, this project is just the first step in closing the Missing Link.” Cascade said they would continue advocating for building the designed trail plan along Shilshole Ave.

Paving over the tracks is the most obvious solution to fixing the notoriously dangerous area near and under the Ballard Bridge, where people biking must cross the poorly-maintained rails. The uneven gaps between the pavement and rails and the awkward shallow angle that they cross the roadway has caused countless people to crash, sometimes resulting in very serious injuries. However, Federal regulations protecting railroads make it essentially impossible for the city to condemn the railway so long as an operator continued to apply for a lease and maintain even minimal use. So even though the Ballard Terminal Railroad barely ever runs trains on the tracks, they remain active and protected by Federal railroad laws. Ballard Terminal Railroad would need to voluntarily abandon their railroad lease in order for the city to pave over the tracks, and that seems to be what they are doing through this legislation.

Both the city’s fully-designed Shilshole alignment for the trail as well as the Leary/Market concept that Councilmember Strauss recently proposed would travel along NW 45th Street under the Ballard Bridge and would need to cross the tracks somewhere around there. So paving over this section of track should not necessarily commit the city to either option, though this is a detail trail advocates will need to watch closely.

Though both sides seem to be in agreement about this ordinance, assuming it really does lead to paving over at least some of the rails, there is still essentially zero trust between trail advocates and the industrial business leaders who have been fighting the trail. Anyone who has been engaged with this frustrating fight will be asking, “What’s the catch?” Hopefully there isn’t one, but I doubt any trail supporter is going to just take the railroad’s word on that. Trail appellants including the Ballard Terminal Railroad burned through all of their trustworthiness many years ago.

All the studies of Missing Link options throughout the years have precluded a railbed option similar to most of the rest of the Burke-Gilman Trail because this section of tracks was still legally considered in use. This is why every design option has been limited by its track-crossing options and why the design runs alongside the tracks. In many cases, parking, loading dock easements, and even two-way general purpose travel has had to be limited because the rarely-used tracks needed to remain open. Abandoning tracks could also have interesting implications for the sections in Frelard and near Fred Meyer. Tracks occupy a lot of land there, especially the double-tracked section near Fred Meyer. This section of tracks has been inaccessible ever since Seattle Public Utilities started work on NW 45th Street. If nothing else, maybe this could lead to an improved trail design near 6th Ave NW, where the trail curves sharply to cross the tracks. But also, this would be a lot of newly-accessible public land with a lot of possibilities for the neighborhood.


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17 responses to “Seattle reaches agreement with railroad to pave over dangerous tracks under the Ballard Bridge”

  1. Kevin in Ballard

    Something fishy here?? Does this change the city’s franchise agreement with Ballard Terminal Railroad or somehow extend it?
    Move the ownership of the railroad out of King County and somehow change liability questions? I don’t think anyone should assume for a second that BTRR or the owners are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. Who is ‘the railroad ‘?

    As always, the devil is in the details…

  2. peri hartman

    There seems to be some important details missing.

    First, we have Ballard Terminal owning Meeker Southern. Apparently, then BT wants to transfer some section of track to MS. Is this correct ?

    Second, I’ll deduce that they cannot do this transfer without an ordinance and the city did some arm twisting to get BT to agree to paving the tracks at the bike crossing. Is this correct ?

    Third, though not specifically relevant, it would be nice to know why BT wants to make the transfer and is willing to allow the crossing to be paved.

    1. FunFella13

      I’d guess they want to concede this so that people stop clamoring for a shilshole road diet. I always thought it made more sense to treat the track issue as a separate matter from the “missing link”; one is a lot easier to change.

      1. eddiew

        Please use road diet for a reduction in the number of lanes. A road diet was not proposed for Shilshole Avenue NW. SDOT proposed a multiuse trail south of Shilshole Avenue NW; many nearby businesses opposed the project. There have been many road diets in Seattle over the decades (e.g., Broadway (twice), California Avenue SW, North 45th Street, Stone Way North, Dexter Avenue North (twice), 24th Avenue NW, West Nickerson Street, Phinney-Greenwood avenues North, Madison Street).

  3. Josh

    Wondering if BTR has some long game on liability, since they’re potentially on the hook for any injuries on the existing crossing.

    Transfer the tracks and all associated liabilities to Meeker, spin off Meeker (purchased by the city?) with an indemnification agreement, BTR gets out of liability for the hazards they’ve been maintaining for decades?

  4. Nathan D.

    This is very curious. For the curious and/or non-Ballardites, the Wikipedia page for the Ballard Terminal Railroad (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballard_Terminal_Railroad) is rather detailed. Based on that article,

    Ballard Terminal’s engine pen is located east of 14th, and it’s implied that “paving” the connection would sever the pen from the operating portion of the spur. Since Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel is Ballard Terminal’s sole customer, taking deliveries of raw (eponymous) materials every couple days, it seems they do not see a need to maintain service east of 15th any longer. Perhaps they’ll just start keeping “Li’l Beaver” at the “yard” by Shilshole Marina.

    This seems to be a rare instance of Dan Strauss actually using some municipal leverage to get a win for the City, which anyone who’s familiar with railroad power in this country knows, is surprisingly difficult.

    The modification of track just east of 15th was one of the major blockages to completing a Shilshole route of the Missing Link, as well. Maybe this is a sign that the Railroad is finally giving up their part of the fight?

  5. bill

    Paving over the tracks is nice but inadequate in the long term. The abandoned tracks paved over on East Marginal in SODO resurfaced every couple of years, endangering every vehicle and cyclist until the city would eventually get around to paving them over again. This went on for decades until the tracks were finally removed. Surely SDOT knows this. Do it right the first time: pull up the tracks.

  6. Todd W

    Remember when Admiral Ackbar yells out “It’s A TRAP” in Star War: Return of the Jedi?

    No way this is legit. Or… Dan Strauss just made a deal with the devil.

    A few reality checks.

    1) Ballard Terminal serves mostly as a storage facility for Salmon Bay.
    2) Ballard Terminal has spent 20+ years blocking the completion of the BGT
    3) Ballard Terminal has cost the city millions of dollars in bogus legal and environmental fees
    4) Ballard Terminal has made every single legal move possible to delay the completion of the BGT

    Could it possibly be that Ballard Terminal (and Salmon Bay) have another slimy legal move up their sleeve — like create a new party that can make the same 20 legal objections all over again in court? Or move the proceedings out of King County to start all over again? Or somehow protect them from liability? They have way more vested interest in this outcome than Dan Strauss or the city council — and so far have far out maneuvered the city in legal proceedings.

    Or……

    Dan Strauss guaranteed them the Leary Ave route and a rezoning of some plot of land somewhere west of 17th to keep the engine.

    Personally I just think the Shilshole route is way safer, and the claimed damage to business from Salmon Bay is just 100% false. Heidelberg concrete operates on Granville Island in Vancouver, BC, and all of their trucks have to pass one of the busiest bike paths in the city. They are not out of business. 2nd — Salmon Bay has claimed their insurance will go up because of the bike path. Alternative fact. Their insurance – by law – cannot go up based on public road configurations.

  7. Chris Mckenzie

    Dislocated my elbow right off the Burke Gilman trail here decades ago. Even contacted a lawyer, but signage was put up right afterwards most likely by the business in front of the tracks, where no previous warnings had been beforehand, and he decided not to take the case. I have never been able to straighten out my arm since and took a long, frustrating time to get used to its limited mobility (a good 10 years). The city knew of decades of wrecks/accidents of injured cyclist coming directly off the BG trail into danger and blew it off protecting a train owner that used the tracks as his personal playground moving an old vintage engine up and down the block. Shame on the city for knowing of these many, many instances of injury and taking forever to do something about it.

    1. bill

      You are being too hard on the city. The Ballard Toy Railroad and obstructionist businesses have exploited every legal avenue to obstruct the Missing Link. They have prevailed at every turn. Federal law governs railroads, giving the city very little leverage. If you want other examples of the city’s powerlessness, look at the decaying 4th Ave bridge in SODO. The north lane has been closed off to traffic since 2017 because the railroads won’t allow access to the rail yard underneath. And there are the oil trains that rumble through SODO past the stadiums, through the tunnel under downtown, and past Belltown along Alaskan Way.

      1. bob

        You’re being too lenient on the city. BTR is not winning on merits, they are prevailing at every turn because the city continues to make procedural mistakes.

      2. scott anderson

        It is hard for me to understand The Road Diet? Seattle is a working industrial City with many diverse successful businesses. Great working class jobs. Today, I see cars lined up setting for an extended period of time far surpassing any traffic congestion before The Road Diet The Governor is trying to save the world in Washington. I don’t understand that we pay the highest gas tax and business tax’s in the US. Why would the Governor make cars set at idol for110% more than before The Road Diet. I also wonder why I see Coal trains a mile long and oil trans a mile long al most every week and sometimes more. Why are we sending green house gasses to someplace else so people in Washington can pay to pollute the Earth. The balance needs o be shifted to stop pollution not create more. We all want to help. This Road Diet is pure politics and an industry killing.(Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg) Thanks listening. Scott Anderson

  8. William

    Ballard Terminal Railroad has not delivered any freight in at least the last 6 months. As of now they appear to have no customers. They stored empty cars and moved them around a bit over the past months but these are now most if not all gone. There is an antique car and caboose left in the storage area. They have a long term lease for the tracks from the city that will be up soon. For awhile a transient was living beneath one of the rail cars, but that car was since removed. The train was mostly used to slow/prevent construction of the trail in the logical route and they were successful west of 24th.
    Hopefully the city did not agree to anything stupid in the latest deal with BTR.

    1. Scott Anderson

      Hi William
      Sorry, just to let you know that the RR runs many times a week for Salmon Bay Sand and gravel. The RR can bring much more material then 10 trucks could do. Way less environmental damage. Also I would would to say that some of the information that is being posted is not correct. Please be advised that there are 55 industrial dive ways on Shilshole. 30 to 40 Cement trucks everyday. Double long trailer large fuel trucks everyday. The RR has spent 5 million dollars of personal money to save the Industry in Ballard. (Three thousand good paying jobs(Go AI) We are the tax payers that have been paying paying millions to put the Missing Link in the most dangerous busy street in Ballard. Leary is peaceful all day. Now, There are three controlled intersections on Leary. Side walks. Six lane wide street with parking. Leary is a great safe place that the Devil will not go:) Please learn the facts. I’m happy to help. Lets get it finished!! Scott Anderson

      1. Joseph R

        Scott, I wouldn’t describe Leary as “a great safe place” and would disagree that it is “peaceful all day”. It has numerous wide intersections at odd angles that will be challenging to make safe.

        Ballard Ave, on the other hand, is generally quiet and pleasant to ride on…… that would absolutely be my vote for a Shilshole alternative.

  9. Scott Anderson

    Hello All
    I Hope this idea may solve many problems with the Missing Link. Don’t have the bike trail go over the RR tracks. The Missing Link could work if it went North on 14th street straight to the food bank and to Leary Way where the bike trail can be safe. Thank You Scott Anderson CSR Marine Ballard

    1. eddiew

      You may mean 14th Avenue NW, not street. What ROW on 14th Avenue NW would the BGT use? How would it use Leary? There is serious transit and traffic there.

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