The gravel bicycle and pedestrian trail along the old Eastside Rail Corridor runs almost six miles across Kirkland, passing through eight of the city’s 13 neighborhoods and through landscapes that vary from wooded hillsides to the sports courts and gleaming offices of the Google campus.
Plans for the Cross Kirkland Corridor, city officials say, have always included adding high-capacity transit to the 100-foot right of way alongside the existing bicycle trail. But their suggestion to get paved bus lanes on the route added to the Sound Transit 3 project list is stirring opposition among residents who want the trail to remain a natural parkway like the Burke-Gilman Trail.
They argue that Interstate 405 is the better route for buses and that the trail, which opened in January, should be preserved as an urban refuge from traffic and congestion, particularly as the city grows.
The city will host a community meeting Thursday evening at the Kirkland Performance Center to present transit options and answer questions. The city’s vision includes two paved lanes east of the existing bike trail to be built by Sound Transit, with buses running every two to three minutes at rush hour.
The city would redevelop the remaining 70-foot right of way to include paved bike and pedestrian trails, play areas, fountains, art work, public gathering spaces and landscaping.
It’s a high-end vision, more New York City’s High Line than Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail, acknowledged City Manager Kurt Triplett.
And it has a high-end price — an estimated $70 million to $90 million. The City Council approved the corridor master plan in 2014.
The Kirkland corridor is the longest stretch to open so far on the 42-mile Eastside Rail Corridor from abandoned BNSF tracks that ran from Renton to Snohomish.
For the Thursday meeting, Triplett said the city is “in a listening mode” and knows that the trail has been immensely popular.
“We’ve heard the community’s concerns about noise, about safety and pollution if we add buses to the corridor. Our message on Thursday is, ‘we care about these things, too.’ ”
He said any transit option has to fit Kirkland, and he argued buses could be running sooner and at less expense than light rail, and be able to connect residents and workers to Redmond, Bellevue and Seattle.
Ultimately, he said, Sound Transit holds a high-capacity transit easement to the corridor.
“This is really not a Kirkland decision. This is a Sound Transit decision. It’s also not a good option if Sound Transit just passes us by,” Triplett said.
The Legislature this year authorized a Sound Transit 3 tax package of up to $15 billion that could go to voters in November 2016. The agency so far has more proposals for expanding transit in the region than funding. That’s left individual cities competing to get their top projects on the list.
Kirkland is already planning for significant growth in the Totem Lake area at the north end of the corridor where it expects to add 20,000 employees and 4,000 residents by 2035. Google plans to double its space and add up to 1,000 more employees, according to the city.
Another big redevelopment project is under way at the Parkplace shopping center just east of downtown that will add three office buildings, 225,000 square feet of retail space and 300 apartments.
Bill Pollard, managing principal of Talon Private Capital, which will break ground in January on the Parkplace project, said with the city’s arterials already congested, adding transit is essential to compete with Bellevue and Seattle, which both have more commuting options.
“We want any form of north-south transportation we can get. We have to keep up on the transit side to attract the tenants we want,” he said.
Kirkland City Councilmember Toby Nixon cast the lone no vote in September to spend $250,000 on a consultant to develop concepts and cost estimates for bus rapid transit on the corridor.
He notes that the projected growth in the Totem Lake area is still two decades out and the Cross Kirkland Corridor today doesn’t go downtown and doesn’t pass many employment centers.
“How many folks from Google are going to ride bus rapid transit? It doesn’t go where they live and they won’t want to make three changes and walk half a mile at the end,” Nixon said.
Many residents are dismayed at the thought of losing the tranquillity of the trail.
Karen Story, chair of the Highlands Neighborhood Association and a volunteer steward at Cotton Hill Park, which backs onto the Cross Kirkland Corridor, participated in the development of the corridor’s master plan.
She said she knew it could one day be used for light rail, but said that possibility was always in the distant future.
“If the trail is widened to accommodate transit,” she said, “we’ll lose a lot of natural areas. Growing cities need green spaces, for the environment, for physical and spiritual health. As Kirkland grows, preserving the trail becomes even more important.”