Connection disconnection in Edmonds

Councilmembers change their minds on the Waterfront Connector
By Brian Soergel | Sep 28, 2018
Courtesy of: City of Edmonds The “land bridge” design was the public’s favorite in the design of the Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector.

Several members of the Edmonds City Council now have second thoughts about the Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector, which would construct a 16-foot-wide, single-lane structure from the intersection of Edmonds Street and Sunset Avenue to the parking lot at Brackett’s Landing North.

It would allow emergency access to the ferry, marina, senior center and businesses on the west side of the BNSF train tracks, in addition to providing access to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Councilmembers Diane Buckshnis and Mike Nelson are the most vocal dissenters.

Their concerns, expressed during a council meeting Sept. 11, comes after the council unanimously moved to emphasize and prioritize near-term solutions for waterfront access in July 2015. Three months later, councilmembers again unanimously authorized an agreement with Tetra Tech for the Edmonds Waterfront Analysis Project.

Councilmembers also unanimously approved the concept of an emergency connector to the waterfront in November 2016, which was then added to the City of Edmonds’ Capital Improvement Program.

The latest approval was part of a process that started two years ago with a task force where Nelson was co-chair. What followed were several open houses – both physical and online – where the public could voice their opinions.

“When the council says yes to the process, that’s a signal to the administration to get the work that needs to be done to put the project together,” Mayor Dave Earling said. “That’s what we have done.”

But Buckshnis and Nelson, while approving of the emergency-access concept of the past, which ultimately led to more than 50 design options, now say the updated, $30 million plan – whittled down to two options (the “Land Bridge” and“Promenade”) – is too expensive and just not right for the city.

“It is out of scale for our town, and will totally interrupt the entire area by putting stress on our ecological environment, disrupting traffic patterns – emergency and otherwise – and further stress parking,” said Buckshnis, who added that she could envision the project’s cost jumping to $40 million.

“An emergency satellite station could easily be as effective for over 30-plus years before it even begins to pay for that massive project,” she continued. “The estimated $30 million could be better spent on our streets, sidewalks and pedestrian safety. I would prefer to direct our city monies in areas where all citizens will benefit.”

Nelson was stronger in his disapproval.

“The facts have changed,” he said. “The cost of this bridge has jumped to over $30 million now. As the picture has become clearer, I have heard from a lot of residents who believe this project is too expensive. We have many urgent areas in our city to address. For example, many of our children and adults have to walk in the street every day because their neighborhoods don't have sidewalks.

“Our council constantly reviews city projects at all stages of development. Some projects have hiccups, some work out and some do not. This is one we should put on hold. This is not the time for a bridge too far.”

Councilmember Kristiana Johnson also said the project is too expensive. “I need to be convinced,” she said.

The concept

Last November, Earling unveiled his recommendations for alternatives to the at-grade rail crossings at Main and Dayton streets on the heels of a set of findings and recommendations issued by his appointed Advisory Task Force following a 13-month study.

After initially considering up to 51 various alternatives to address pedestrian and vehicle safety, efficient traffic movement, emergency access, and intermodal access, the Task Force held four public open houses to engage members of the public through the process of analysis and narrowing the field of alternatives.

Ultimately the Task Force identified a preferred alternative: a single-lane structure connecting Sunset Avenue at Edmonds Street to the parking lot at Brackett’s Landing North.

It would mainly serve to provide access for emergency vehicles, as well as ferry off-loading or on-loading, with the assistance of traffic control officers when train breakdowns block the two crossings.

The structure also will provide 24/7, ADA-compliant access to the city’s waterfront attractions for pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-motorized traffic.

Currently, emergency responders have to wait until train traffic clears, or in the event of a train parked over both crossings, must cross on foot through the trains.

Presently, the at-grade railroad crossings at Dayton and Main are temporarily blocked by 35-40 trains each day along the city’s waterfront and could eventually be blocked by up to 100 trains a day by 2030, the City reports.

In November 2016, the anticipated cost of the project was between $25 million and $30 million, according to Patrick Doherty, director of Edmonds’ Economic Development and Community Services.

At that time, Councilmember Nelson said the following: “The Edmonds Street connector is the best option to address increasing rail traffic for several reasons. It is the only location that provides the fastest emergency response from the fire and police stations to the waterfront. Remember, the primary purpose of this study was to prevent the delays we have been seeing when trains block emergency vehicle access.”

Nelson also noted in 2016 that the connector was the least visually disruptive, but still big enough to hold emergency vehicles, and allowed for day-to-day use by pedestrians and bicycles while connecting to an existing walkway.

“And the costs are manageable,” Nelson said, “because it solves multiple problems, which makes it more likely to be funded at the state and federal level. It is a solution we can achieve now, in years, not decades.”

Partners, and the cost

To pay for the Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector, the City continues to seek a combination of regional, state and federal funding.

At the Sept. 11 council meeting, Director of Public Works Phil Williams gave a detailed look at the cost, which at this point is estimated at $29.885 million. That has included commitments of $7.2 million from the state; $100,000 each from both the Port of Edmonds and BNSF; $20,000 from Sound Transit; $10,000 from Community Transit.

The City of Edmonds currently is in for $265,000.

The City also has funding applications outstanding from other sources, the bulk of it – $18.856 million – from a U.S. Department of Transportation BUILD grant.

It’s important to note, Doherty said, that the preliminary $29.885 million cost has a 40 percent contingency factor to account for inflation, change orders, materials and other factors. That means, he said, that the total cost is closer to $18 million.

“The fact of the matter is that we have an untenable situation now where people are at risk,” Doherty said. “If you’re lying there on the ground with a heart attack or you’re choking in a restaurant and call an EMT, and they have to wait around for two to five minutes, you might not be around afterwards to talk about it.”

Data gathered from 2012 show that trains block access to the waterfront for about 80 minutes every day due to 37 closures at Main and Dayton.

Since 2012, there have been at least 11 cases in which access to the west side of the tracks was closed from 45 minutes to more than four hours. The latter came in November 2013 after a train struck and killed a 35-year-old man walking on the tracks.

The situation will only get worse, Doherty said, as train traffic is expected to more than double in volume in the near future and could cause about four hours of closure daily. In addition, BNSF is expected to add a second track within the new few years.

“The key message here is that we are talking about the future,” Doherty said. “We’re not talking about a snapshot of today, or about the last 10 to 15 years. We know that the trains will grow in volume. It’s not about the past that we’re talking about. It’s about the future.”

Said Earling: “I’m concerned about the safety of people on the other side of the tracks. That was the genesis of this whole effort.”

Other uses for the money?

Nelson, as already stated, had reservations about the cost, and that the money could be spent on other City projects.

During the Sept. 11 council meeting, Councilmember Dave Teitzel reiterated that the vast majority of the cost was not local funds, but state and federal funds. Without the Waterfront Connector, the funds would not be available for other purposes.

The federal government has funds available that are allocated to states and prioritized for expenditures on transportation and are very specific with regard to what they can fund, Teitzel added. It’s not as if, he said, federal and state money could be used for sidewalks if the Waterfront Connector wasn’t built.

Public hearing

At a public hearing Sept. 20, five citizens spoke out against the Waterfront Connector, citing cost, misleading statistics, reduced parking and the physical alteration of the beach.

Among those speaking in favor were Bob McChesney and Jim Orvis from the Port of Edmonds; Bob Rinehart and Farrell Fleming from the Edmonds Senior Center; Battalion Chief Jason Blachly of South County Fire; Nick Echelbarger, Edmonds property developer and president of the Edmonds Community College Foundation; and Terra Kelly, representing Arnies of Edmonds, which has been on the waterfront for 38 years.

What’s next?

A second waterfront task force has been meeting this year, led by co-chairs and City Council member Tom Mesaros and Port of Edmonds Commissioner Jim Orvis.

Mayor Earling is expected to make a recommendation to City Council Oct. 16, a decision that he said could combine the two proposed alternatives.

 

 

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