Hijacking the Bay to Baker Trail
by Preston L. Schiller
Bellingham resident Preston L. Schiller has been involved with transportation issues for over 25 years as a citizen, alternatives advocate, researcher and teacher. He is co-author of “An Introduction to Sustainable Transportation: Policy, Planning and Implementation” (Earthscan Publishing, 2010).
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of two articles about transportation. The first article appeared in the August 2010 issue. The opinions in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Whatcom Watch.
Please keep this a secret: Bellingham’s Parks and Recreation Department and its Greenways program do trails, paths, greenways and over-water boardwalks (perhaps they should be called “cementwalks?”) as well or better than any place I know in North America. More and better than Seattle. Better than Boulder, overall, in terms of coverage within the city—albeit the trails could be better integrated with and connected to the street system. And the citizenry taxes itself, again and again, to support the Greenways program.
Parks-Recreation-Greenways efforts have been providing citizens with excellent recreational walking and bicycling facilities, some of which are very useful for a variety of trips. It is then especially alarming when the Public Works road gang attempts to hijack a stellar Greenways project.
This is the case with the TIP’s Project 14 proposed Birchwood-James Connector that would take over a privately owned abandoned narrow railroad bed in a wetland that probably could never be developed under existing environmental regulations and expectations. The abandoned rail bed runs from Roeder easterly to the city limit. There are only three owners along it: BNSF, Bellingham Cold Storage (Talbot Investments/Barkley Company) and the developer Edelstein of Fairhaven Highlands fame.
The narrow rail bed has been long identified for Greenways acquisition as a crucial piece of the Bay to Baker Trail, first proposed in the 1970s and slowly taking shape with funding since 1992. Segments of the trail have already been assembled in the county. City negotiations are proceeding reasonably well with BNSF, but the two developer interests either aren’t talking with the city or are insisting that a trail can only be allowed if an arterial along the rail bed is built for them. In recent years, St. Joseph Hospital (now PeaceHealth) has joined the chorus of developers and “best minds in City Hall” in calling for more new roads as the “solution” to the medical center area traffic problems. As part of its Institutional Master Plan, the hospital commissioned a consultant study (“Cornwall Park Area 7 Institutional Master Plan: Traffic/Transportation Analysis Report”) in order to validate its wishes. The main components of PeaceHealth’s “transportation solution” were:
improving circulation internal to the medical campus area: the flowery language of “pedestrians, bicycles and transit” is used but priority is given to motor vehicles and of highest priority is expanding (free) parking—a tried and true way of defeating efforts to manage vehicular demand. This is the only effort whose cost would accrue to PeaceHealth.
improving circulation external to the medical campus (although often caused by its lack of effective “transportation demand management” should include, at considerable public expense, the following: an extension of Squalicum to connect with Sunset. This might not be a completely bad idea if it were carefully done as an emergency (E.R.) vehicle only access. But it would likely come forward as a general traffic access which would likely have the effect of increasing traffic overall rather than relieving it on any nearby street. It would also, rightfully, be seen as damaging by the neighborhood.
“Reconfigure and otherwise improve roadways and traffic control at the Meridian/Birchwood intersection to relieve congestion and eliminate bottlenecks,” a costly public redo of this complicated interchange. Detail-lacking, so it is difficult to evaluate. No mention of improving walking and bicycling conditions at this wretched interchange.
“Cornwall Extension: extend Cornwall northward along east side of park to Squalicum Parkway on west side of campus.” Of course, what are parks for but to be placeholders for road expansions and extensions? This proposal is, thankfully, mostly DOA due to restrictions on the private property that would have to be acquired.
“Birchwood Extension: Extend Birchwood eastward under I-5 to James Street.” This is the Bay to Baker Trail hijacking whose details will be discussed further below.
“New northeast campus access: Provide new connection from Birchwood Extension to campus east access.” If the city builds the Bay to Baker arterial, then PeaceHealth would want a new road through Bug Lake and the adjacent wetlands connecting it directly to the northeast part of its campus. Wave bye-bye to environmental peace or health as you drive through the swamp. Even this measure, solely beneficial to the hospital complex, would likely be funded by the city. Also see the next brilliant project proposal linked to this one.
“New I-5 North Ramps: Provide (additional) I-5 ramps to/from north (southbound off, northbound on) at the new campus east access.” Situated right next to the existing Sunset interchange and with a likely price tag in the $50-100 million range, this is the least likely to succeed of the PeaceHealth wish list.
“I-5/Sunset Interchange Access/Circulation Improvements: Prepare plan for comprehensive program of arterial, freeway and traffic control improvements needed to accommodate forecasted traffic flows into, out of, and through the I-5/Sunset Interchange area.” More roadspeak for costly public expenses guaranteed to increase congestion.
Compare this road capacity expansion wish list, now informing city transportation planning, with a more surgical approach to a non-motorized circulation and E.R. vehicle response need in Kirkland, Wash. (a city widely respected for good planning that was the first city in the state to meet or exceed its growth management goals). Just a few years ago a new crossing over I-405 was created with a mix of funding sources for pedestrians, bicyclists and E.R. response vehicles. The neighborhoods on each side of the freeway realized that there was a need for it but did not want it to become another car crossing.
Public Works Denies Creating a “Field of Dreams”
There are a few aspects of this grandiose plan that need to be highlighted:
The single track rail bed is very narrow and is abutted by wetlands and flowages on each side. At present, it could accommodate a 10-12 foot trail at most (all that is needed is some gravel to cover the rails). In order to accommodate a two-lane arterial plus pedestrians and bicyclists (at rail bed grade), a swath of wetland, perhaps one half-mile in length and 50 feet in width, would need to be filled and elevated several feet above flood level.
Two of the three alternative alignments of the road and trail developed for Public Works in their “Orchard Drive Extension, Engineering Design Feasibility Report (2007)” have the trail separated from and below the level of the road for the length of the Birchwood-James Connector (also known as the Orchard Drive Extension). One of these two has the trail at grade (meaning at swamp level), and another has it on stilts in order to raise it one foot above the swamp. In both cases, the non-motorized portion meanders, is separated from the roadway and its lighting, and is subject to flooding. Walkers will need wading boots and bicyclists will need very fat tires to use this facility! Only one alternative has the trail and road at the same level as the current rail bed, safely above flood levels. I have the unfortunate impression that even city councilmembers who are questioning of this project have not been sufficiently briefed by Public Works to understand these aspects. Despite its retrograde treatment of walking and bicycling, the project is still touted as “multimodal.”
The project proposal ignores the voluminous research that finds that the principal effect of road expansion, including linkages between roads to create shortcuts or alternative routes, is to expand traffic, to generate more driving. Contrary to traffic engineering dogma, road expansion may only “relieve congestion” for a couple years at most until the newly created pavement begins to generate travel demand that soon leads to more congestion. When “generated traffic” and related paradoxes were brought to Public Works’ attention in regards to this project, they were arrogantly dismissed as “theoretical” and “academic,” etc.
The main effect of road expansion is to generate more and longer motor vehicle trips. One has only to look to the experience of the completion of I-90 in Seattle as one example among many that have been documented: When completed in 1993, tens of thousands of new daily motor vehicle trips beyond what project models had projected instantly appeared. A perplexed WSDOT studied this and found that these were not trips coming off other roads; they were not generated by a sudden population increase or a new major destination; these were new trips that were generated, well, by the newly available road space. This is an example of the “field of dreams” phenomenon: if you build it they will come.
A related phenomenon known as Braess’ Paradox is especially applicable to Public Works’ drive to “increase motor vehicle connectivity.” This mathematical exercise demonstrates how adding extra capacity to a network (such as a “connecting link”) can often reduce network performance overall. In other words, more links can create more traffic and congestion. Conversely, removing some links or reducing capacity can often lead to improved traffic flow. Driving is a human activity; most trips are discretionary—made as a choice, and like other aspects of human behavior, subject to shaping by opportunity, cost, various incentives or disincentives or even better information about alternatives. Non-motorized connectivity between disconnected streets and trails, however, would be a worthy endeavor and should be a high priority.
A computer search on “Bay to Baker Trail” indicates that many Bellingham neighborhoods proudly identify this as an amenity for their future use. Will neighborhoods be so enamored if it becomes the “Bay to Baker Swamp Slog?”
Is the neighborhood along Orchard Drive east of I-5 welcoming of the Orchard Drive Extension that would bring a great deal of traffic to their neighborhood? Are they even aware of this proposal and its ramifications? Recently the city pushed through new neighborhood plans for this area that take as a given the new arterial. Were the neighbors truly informed?
Project 14 would probably cost several times more than the $4.5 million estimated in the 2010 TIP due to the huge amount of fill and mitigation necessitated. If the Birchwood-James Connector is built, it could trigger other even more costly infrastructure expansions on PeaceHealth’s wish list. This could become Bellingham’s equivalent of the Big Dig; perhaps the Birchwood-James Connector should be renamed the “Big Fill?”
The Politics of the Bay to Baker Trail Hijacking
The TIP is a mixture of the good, the not-so-good and the ugly. There are some good public expenditures for needed and attractive pedestrian and bicycle improvements—some of which are funded, at least partially, by Greenways. There are several that should raise questions, such as the tens of millions of dollars proposed for waterfront infrastructure ahead of an accepted redevelopment plan or client; how do we know that these will be done wisely and well for the sake of improved non-motorized access or whether they will principally serve the port’s plans for big parking lots to serve big office towers and a big marina?1 And then there are some downright ugly ones such as Project 14, the Birchwood-James Connector (arterial road).
I have chosen to focus on the Bay to Baker Trail hijacking as the extreme example of Bellingham’s tipsy transportation policy and planning. The excess lanes of the Samish Way redo to the neglect of bicycle lanes (a “sharrow” or shared bike-car lane is widely rejected by most bicycling advocates) even though the better grid within the neighborhood should lead to less traffic on the arterial is another example of road-think. There are many other recent examples one could cite, but the Birchwood-James Connector strikes me as the most egregious of mis-planning occurring in a policy vacuum.
“Policy” and “planning” may not be appropriate terms at all for the processes that have created the TIP since each term infers careful analysis and arduous deliberation both within government and in the community at large. Careful analysis, thoughtful conceptualization and arduous deliberation do not seem to be happening in the transportation arena.
One can understand that a development interest would want a new road to connect its waterfront holdings on Roeder with its holdings near the hospital and its interests in the Irongate industrial area. One can understand that the hospital would find it easier to want the city to make its roads bigger than to charge its employees for parking. One could understand why a medical center would raise the emotional specter of ambulance delay as another reason for more traffic lanes—and get away with creating this urban myth without studies or documentation. One can understand their interests. But what about the public interest?
In the year or more that I have been raising questions about the Bay to Baker Trail hijacking I have encountered several pat excuses for it: It’s needed (this usually ends the conversation); the hospital is not going to move; it’s the last way to connect the two sides of I-5; there’s a lot of growth over there that needs the road—and more growth coming; the hospital did a study and it shows why it is needed, etc., etc. And from the old guard of the city council, Borneman and Knutson, during discussion of this project at a May 2010 council meeting: “We’ve been discussing this project a long time,” as though that justified it.
Knutson, an employee of Talbot’s Bellingham Cold Storage, is a strong supporter of Project 14 and was a strong supporter of the McLeod-Woburn Sunset widening, which also served development interests in or adjacent to that corridor. The mayor posits a “need” for this project and vows it will not go forward without a trail, although it is not clear whether he had examined the plans that show trail alternatives in the swamp.
My letter about Bay to Baker Trail in the June 2 Cascadia Weekly generated a large amount of e-mails to city councilmembers from people who questioned Project 14. The new director of Public Works was prepared to entertain a move to pull it from the TIP. But while there were four or possibly five councilmembers prepared to oppose it, they had not developed a strategy; they had not talked among themselves; they had not prepared to kill or modify the project to assure the primacy of the trail. So when one well-meaning councilmember suggested that Public Works study this project further and report to them at some future time, it mollified their objections and the TIP passed 7-0 with Project 14 intact. Oh, by the way, Public Works had a feasibility study done already: it’s the one with the trails in the swamp.
The most chilling assessment I encountered was from a major player within the development community well-acquainted with Bellingham politics. While sympathetic to my concerns, he virtually urged me to not tilt at this windmill of a project, indicating to me that the powers that be want this project, and the powers that be will get it.
But what about the powers that we be? Do the citizens who have voted on more than one occasion to fund this Greenways project have no power, no say? Are the environmental watchdogs going to recede to a safe distance rather than challenge this destructive project? Are the walking and bicycling enthusiasts prepared to don hip boots and turn their bicycles into paddle-bikes so that the cars can zoom comfortably by? And what of the organizations that have words like “future” or “sustainable” in their public interest names—will they show leadership in this area?
Isn’t it time to push Bellingham into a more sustainable transportation future? Isn’t it time to demand that the rail bed be preserved for a future trail? Isn’t it time to tell the government officials and the developers to create sustainable transportation policy and planning and move beyond “business as usual?” Isn’t it time for the powers that we be to assert ourselves? Isn’t it time to draw a line in the swamp? §
For more information:
1To read more about transportation, see the article “The Benefits of Limited Waterfront Parking” in the October-November 2009 issue of Whatcom Watch by Wes Frysztacki: http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1122.