With bigger ideas for a long-planned trail system in mind, the Tacoma City Council struck a deal Tuesday with the University of Washington Tacoma that will allow the college to take ownership of a swath of railway property bisecting its downtown campus.
In exchange for the 20-foot-wide stretch within the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s old right of way that will help the university complete a library expansion project, the UWT has agreed to grant three future property easements to the city, including public access for its planned Prairie Line Trail.
The university also will develop, own, operate and maintain the segment of the planned public trail that will stretch between South 17th and South 21st streets through its campus. City and UWT officials plan to work cooperatively to design the trail section, the southern portion of which is expected to be completed by the fall of 2012, city officials said.
“We have every confidence they will construct a trail segment consistent with the quality of trail segments we’re envisioning for our overall project,” Ryan Petty, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Department, said Tuesday.
The agreement, approved unanimously by the council, is the first in a series of steps city officials hope to take this year to establish a formal development plan for the Prairie Line Trail, Petty said.
The city has long planned to develop a “rails-to-trails” system of public pathways through downtown Tacoma and beyond. Part of the vision hinged on acquiring and developing the old Prairie Line, a key link within the city’s grander plan for a public trails network.
The route of the first Northern Pacific train to reach Puget Sound, the now-abandoned Prairie Line, cuts directly through the UWT’s campus and offers development potential to connect downtown with South Tacoma via the Water Ditch Trail, and with the Tacoma Narrows via the Scott Pierson Trail.
Funding for design work on a Prairie Line Trail is in place, but finding money to develop an overall trail running from South 25th to Dock Street – with early estimates at $5.7 million – remains an issue. City officials are now applying for grants and seeking alternative funding sources, Petty said. “It’s a very high priority for us,” he said.
In 2008, the city agreed to a deal with BNSF to acquire part of the railway’s right of way through the UWT campus for the project. Last year, UWT bought the remaining two-thirds of the Prairie Line right of way from BNSF in preparation for a campus library expansion project set to break ground in March, UWT spokesman Mike Wark said. The university also negotiated to acquire the BNSF land promised to the city, leading to Tuesday’s deal.
According to the agreement, the UWT views all of the railway property through its campus as “an integral part of its Campus Master Plan.” In the short term, the university needs full ownership to eventually build a sky bridge above the old line that will connect the existing library with a new annex, Wark added.
“Ownership makes things vastly smoother for our construction project,” Wark said.
University officials will meet with the city Landmarks Preservation Commission today to discuss the possible preservation of remaining ties and rails, which UWT had considered removing but may be historically significant.