Peter Callaghan: More good news for Prairie Line Trail

Staff WriterApril 29, 2014 

Barry Civil Construction worker Nathan Brueher, with shovel, watches Monday as Chris Warner uses an excavator to move soil for a footing for the Prairie Line Trail at the University of Washington Tacoma. The section of the trail that runs through the campus is expected to be completed in the fall.


There are a lot of tough jobs in local government.

Cop. Firefighter. Refuse collection. Sewage treatment plant operator.

But I’m prepared to argue that the toughest job award goes to whichever poor soul is assigned to negotiate with the railroad formerly known as the Northern Pacific. If the nation’s second transcontinental railroad needs a new slogan, it could be: “Successfully messing with local governments for 150 years.”

That helps explain that while it shouldn’t be big news that the city of Tacoma and the BNSF have finally signed a deal that gives each what it wants, it is.

Why’d it take so long? Don’t blame government this time. It took six years to negotiate details with BNSF lawyers and even took BNSF 15 months after the City Council accepted the deal to get it through the railroad bureaucracy.

With approval in hand, Tacoma gets ownership of the historic right of way that slices diagonally through the southern part of downtown. That means construction of a mile-long linear park — known as the Prairie Line Trail — can finally begin.

In return, BNSF gets property and permission to build a second access road into its former South Tacoma shops property, access needed to find new industrial and distribution tenants. It also got closure of a road that crosses its mainline adjacent to Interstate 705 at A Street.

No one thought it would take this long. Good thing, then, that while assistant economic development director Martha Anderson was dealing with BNSF, the planning staff was moving ahead with financing, design and engineering. Construction could start by the end of this year.

And this agreement is only the latest piece of good news for the Prairie Line.

 • The Puget Sound Regional Council put the project at the top of its annual grant list — awarding Tacoma $1.9 million in federal funds for construction of the segment from the University of Washington Tacoma to South 15th Street. That’s on top of the $465,000 it gave previously for design work.

 • The United Way agreed to broker a sale of the remaining right of way that sits between its building and the Tacoma Art Museum. That is the area where the city is getting just 20 feet of the 80-foot right of way, with the railroad threatening to sell the rest for development.

 • While the Legislature did not pass a revised construction budget, a request from Tacoma legislators for $300,000 to reimburse United Way for the sale price won House approval and should compete well next year when a full capital budget is adopted.

 • UWT, which is ahead of the city in development of its segment of the trail because it purchased the right of way outright from BNSF, has started construction. Its project, created by Portland’s Place Studio with lots of public help, should open by midfall.

“It’s finally happening,” said Elliott Barnett, a city planner who has been a primary staffer on the project.

Construction money for the portion through the Brewery District isn’t yet in hand, but Tacoma is getting lots of attention from grant-giving agencies because this project is unique. The Prairie Line runs through the middle of a developed city where open space is in short supply. The gentle grade needed by a locomotive also will provide a gentle climb for walkers and bike riders from the Foss Waterway to South 26th Street.

Want historic? It was this right of way that brought the first Northern Pacific train to tidewater in 1873, securing NP’s land grant and leading to completion of a transcontinental line chartered by Congress and signed into law in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln.

Before you start having good feelings about BNSF, though, note that the city now has to fix a problem that came with its newly acquired land. On one edge of the land near the art museum is a billboard with a lifetime easement. To move ahead with the trail, the city will now will have to buy out an easement that should have been BNSF’s obligation … but wasn’t (see slogan above).

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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