An urban trail, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.
We’ve seen how the University of Washington Tacoma will transform the stretch of abandoned rail line that cuts diagonally through its warehouse district campus. A simple-but-serene design will take what was a negative feature and make it an attraction — not just in the city but perhaps the region. (Take a look here, bit.ly/prairieline.)
The result can’t help but put pressure on the City of Tacoma, which will announce today a new deal with BNSF Railway to acquire 20 feet of right of way for its sections of what will become the Prairie Line Trail. It will receive its land on the historic track from South 15th Street to the northern corner of the UWT and from the southern corner of campus to South 25th Street.
Tacoma also gains air rights over tracks that run parallel to the Foss Waterway so as to replace the semi-circular ramp from South 15th Street to Dock Street and someday add a pedestrian overpass elsewhere along the waterfront.
In exchange, the city will permanently close the section of A Street that passes under Interstate 705 and once required a crossing of tracks along Dock Street. The city also will provide the railway northern access to its South Tacoma Shops property.
This is nearly identical to the deal reached in 2008 that was endorsed by the City Council but never fully executed. Like then, this one is carved into two agreements — the trade of property and air rights in one and the “donation” of the trail right of way in another. BNSF tax attorneys likely prefer it that way.
BNSF is the successor to the Northern Pacific Railway that built this rail line, which made up the terminal tracks that technically completed the railway’s transcontinental line from Chicago in 1873. It is named for the cross-prairie path it took through Thurston and Pierce before plunging to tidewater to meet a deadline set by Congress. The line was taken out of service in 2003.
Tacoma has grant money to design its segments and has hired the same firm that designed the UWT’s section — Portland-based Place. But there is a big difference between what Place had to work with through the campus and what it will be presented with by the city. The UWT acquired the entire 80-foot width. The city gave it the rights to the 20-foot width promised by BNSF and the university then purchased the remainder. That allowed for both a trail and a linear park.
But for now, at least, BSNF will part with just 20 feet and retain the 30 feet on either side (with a few exceptions such as at street crossings). For the stretches south of campus through the Brewery District, the city gets the 20 feet down the center where the historic rails sat. But north of campus between the United Way Building and Tacoma Art Museum, the railroad insisted that the city take its 20 feet on the edge closest to the museum.
That does two things, neither positive. First, it takes the future trail off of the historic trackage. Nearby, in this case, is not close enough.
Second, it allows BNSF to create a consolidated 60-foot-wide parcel and perhaps market it to a developer who might permanently entomb the historic tracks under a building.
United Way leadership has given up its idea of purchasing that land and combining it with an existing parking lot, first for expanded parking and later as a development site. Call them up and thank them for that decision. Better yet, bump up your donations to the community chest.
Once the two deals with BNSF are completed, perhaps by March, Tacoma can push ahead with design for its segments and then find money to build it.
But the city shouldn’t stop there. It can then begin to think about how to get its hands on the rest of the 80-foot right of way that will allow it to match the incredible urban amenity that UWT will open to the city and region by year’s firstname.lastname@example.org