Proposed over-water walkway is dead

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Sat, May 21, 2016, 4:32 pm  //  John Servais

View from north end of Boulevard Park and looking north to the Cornwall landfill. The white on the landfill is a huge plastic blanket covering the toxic dump. The walkway would extend from this dock to there.

It can now be reliably reported that the long planned over-water walkway, running from the north end of Boulevard Park to the Cornwall Avenue landfill, has been cancelled by the Bellingham Parks Department. Almost since the completion of the Taylor Dock, the city has planned this second concrete walkway which would be nearly double the length of the Taylor Dock. Cancelling this project will free up $4 million in Greenways funds for actual green ways as opposed to a concrete bridge. 

There has not been much public support for the project but the city has been quietly pushing it since 2010. The city applied for, and received, federal grants of over $2 million. They planned to add $4 million of Greenways funds for a total of $6 million of the estimated $8 million needed for the project, with the rest from city impact fees and excise taxes. But the federal funds were granted based on questionable claims. The grants were available for transportation projects and this dock didn't seem to serve that purpose at all.  Further, the city's application indicated the concrete walkway "...will significantly improve public shoreline access along Bellingham’s waterfront by providing a continuous shoreline trail between Fairhaven and the former Cornwall Avenue Landfill site,..."  It fails to mention we already have a wonderful South Bay Trail along the shoreline from Boulevard Park connecting to the north and downtown Bellingham. 

In 2010, the city reached out to the Lummi Nation for approval of the project, per their authority by the 1855 Point Elliot Treaty, as the waters along Bellingham Bay where the walkway would have been built is in salmon fishing grounds. In season, gillnet fishing boats can be seen along the Bellingham waterfront. The Taylor Dock was grandfathered as it was originally a railroad track built on pilings 100 years ago.

Documents between the city and Lummi Nation show that from the beginning the Lummi were reluctant to even study the new proposed walkway project. According to a reliable source inside city hall, the city offered the Lummi $50,000 for their permission. This offer apparently offended Lummi leaders and sealed their refusal to study the project.  

See PDF file with this letter plus Lummi Nation documents relating to walkway. ( temp note:  prior to 7:45 pm this evening, the wrong document was linked.  The correct one is now in place.)

A week ago, the city wrote the Washington Department of Transportation to request that state grants for the walkway be transferred to road projects near the Granary on the old Georgia Pacific site. In part, the request said, "The [walkway] Project is unbuildable, at this time, and we hereby request a waiver to payback of the funds." This pretty well says the project is dead, but also opens questions regarding the hundreds of thousands of dollars the city has already spent planning this now-defunct bridge. 

Over the past six years, the city has spent over $800 thousand of state administered federal grant money planning this walkway, leaving only about $1.6 million for use near the Granary.  Of the original $8 million, the $4 million in Greenways money remains available to us.  The city addresses the issue of state funds already spent on this project in the attached pdf file, linked from earlier paragraph.

I have been watching for documents indicating this project was dead ever since a senior level source in city hall told me weeks ago that the bridge was dead in the water. Two weeks ago, I attended a Greenways Advisory Committee meeting where they spent some time discussing possible projects for the newly available $4 million dollars. But still no official word.

Based on the Greenways committee discussion, I contacted the city to learn what might become of the newly-released walkway funds. The administrator I spoke with was emphatic that the $4 million was earmarked for waterfront transportation needs and would not be available for land acquisition or trail development anywhere away from the downtown redevelopment area. This conflicts with my understanding that the Greenways Advisory Committee is authorized to recommend uses of the Greenways fund to the City Council, and it is the council that decides how the funds are used. The administration's reaction to my question suggests the mayor and parks department are trying to gain control of that $4 million -  perhaps to solve budget shortfalls and aid other non-green projects?

The return of an unencumbered $4 million into our Greenways Fund opens a variety of opportunities. I will follow up later this weekend with a suggestion; perhaps other citizens also have suggestions.  A few years ago, the city spent half a million dollars of Greenways funds to install plastic grass at civic field - outraging many citizens who voted for the last Greenways levy.  Hopefully, these returned funds from the cancelled walkway will be used for land acquisition and more trails as we were promised when we voted for the levy in 2006.

As a reminder: Another Greenways levy (#4) will be on the ballot in November. Last Monday, the City Council unanimously agreed to send it to the public for a vote.  Greenways 4 will run for seven years. The rate will be reduced from the current Greenways 3 levy of 59 cents per thousand dollars of property value to 50 cents. However, as written now, it allocates only 33% of funds for land acquisition - the lowest percentage ever. The mayor complained to the council that even 33% is too much. Further, 25% would supplement the regular parks department maintenance on all parks - not just Greenways-acquired land.  Mayor Linville doesn't seem to understand why we have agreed to tax ourselves for the Greenways levies for the past 26 years.  

A special thanks to Wendy Harris for managing to get the attached documents showing how the Lummi Nation has again saved us from ourselves in our efforts to wreck our waterfronts - whether from detrimental coal terminals or unsightly, unnecessary and un-green concrete walking bridges.

The plan for the now cancelled dock. It would be half a mile long and be set with almost 100 pilings in what are salmon fishing grounds. Notice South Bay Trail is not shown on the land along the shoreline.

David Camp  //  Sun, May 22, 2016, 3:19 am

The railway line is the issue - the walkway allowed bike and foot traffic from the South side to downtown without crossing the tracks at the level crossing at the north end of Boulevard Park. And if I remember correctly, BNSF could still close off that crossing. You saw what happened in Ferndale where BNSF applied for, and was granted, the right to close the level crossing at Brown Rd. All it would tale is some vindictiveness at BNSF over the dang nimby hippies in b’ham for killing the coal dump. Does it seem to you that the train drivers are riding their horns louder and longer through town at night than required?


Tim Paxton  //  Sun, May 22, 2016, 9:17 am

Great News!  Good report and big thanks also to Wendy Harris for being on top of this subject for years.  This trail idea was an insult to Greenways supporters and Lummis alike.  The City was forced to abandon this plan.

There already IS a trail along the shore line and opening this overwater one would have made it easier for the City to Vacate the Boulevard trail in favor of condo developers.  It was not a land acquisition.

This all White person designed trail was racist in its gross presumption that the Lummi Nation would simply give up its historic fishing and shell fishing grounds forever.  The final insult was the destination mound of toxic waste.  Who would even take a dog to visit a pile of mercury or dioxin?

I understand the new proposed Greenways fund is already targeted to pay for clean up cost of these mountains of toxic waste made by GP.  I certainly won’t vote for that type of new and abused Greenways fund.


John Servais  //  Sun, May 22, 2016, 11:07 am

David,

Actually, BNSF cannot close the crossings in Bellingham because those crossings - rights of way - existed before the railroads came to Bellingham.  In most towns in the American west, the railroad was first and the towns grew up around the railroad - leaving the railroads able to dictate crossing terms.  Not so in Bellingham.

About 12 years ago, the railroad tried to close the crossing and was quickly made aware that they could not.  That pedestrian crossing is now there forever.  It is not a detriment to using the South Bay Trail.

This crossing is also now much safer than in the past.  When the RR tried to close this it was because they said it was unsafe for pedestrians crossing.  The mayor promised to make the crossing safe - and then did not.  And just a few years later Maya was tragically killed riding her bike and being hit by an Amtrak train.  Since then the city and BNSF have greatly improved the safety of the crossing and think they are done.  But it is still unsafe.  It can easily be made quite safe - and it is a job for us citizens to pressure our elected city government to make it so.

That said, making this crossing totally safe is 1/100th the cost of the over the water walkway.  And does not violate fishing rights.


Scott Wicklund  //  Sun, May 22, 2016, 12:05 pm

The pdf documents John posted are imho a must read to grasp the arrogance of those involved at COB.  Has Wharf Street already been vacated to BNSF?  That was my impression.  Thanks for this post!


Tip Johnson  //  Sun, May 22, 2016, 5:37 pm

I recall the RR used the trail closure to negotiate an increased speed limit through town.  Then mayor Asmundson readily granted it in their franchise renewal.  Remarkably, The Bellingham franchise didn’t cover the route through the former City of Fairhaven, never having been corrected upon that city’s consolidation with Bellingham.  In other words, we probably had the leverage to negotiate a much better long term relationship with the RR, but caved and gave them the speed increase which necessitates longer horn blasts.


George Dyson  //  Mon, May 23, 2016, 1:21 pm

I suppose it is commendable to hear COB declare this project to be “unbuildable, at this time.” The B-side to this sad, expensive tale is that the State surface transportation funding is being shifted to the Granary Avenue project, in support of a bankrupt plan for waterfront redevelopment which is also unbuildable, at this time. The pie-in-the-sky waterfront redevelopment plan which was the basis for giving G-P / Koch Industries a free pass out of town was also the basis of a disastrously one-sided Interlocal Agreement, which, instead of keeping COB afloat, appears to be sucking the life out of everything in town.


Alex McLean  //  Mon, May 23, 2016, 4:03 pm

A few points:

Greenway funds—at least for the current levy that is about to expire—have two devoted tranches, or dividers. These are defined by “Acquisition” dollars and “Development” dollars.

The “$4 million” that was pegged to the Overwater Walkway, since it very clearly is a construction project, always has been and likely always will be allocated to Development projects—it is money for building and forming completed parks and trails, making the purchased lands useable for the public by installing parking lots, benches, toilets, etc.—and likely will not be made available to make new Acquisitions.
 
While it is true that City Council could muscle these dollars around into different areas (as they have ultimate authority to sausage these dollars any way they want) I doubt that will happen. At least not easily.

I will continue to maintain that the existence of the South Bay Trail, while clearly a “duplicate” of the route defined by the Overwater Walkway, is not now and likely never will be an adequate route of access to our future waterfront and the new, someday, Cornwall Beach Park.

If we concede that railway crossings are an issue (they totally are) then please add the complication of Warf Street—that queer dogleg of asphalt that shunts cars up the hill and onto Boulevard and its vehicle route to Fairhaven.

Warf Street, due partly to the street-level railroad crossing, will either be closed or need a ramp in later phases of Waterfront District development.
While we could wait for that day and, presumably, install sidewalks and trail access to the already absurdly expensive endeavor ... that day will likely come decades after Cornwall Beach Park is completed, long after it is ready for use and public enjoyment.

As it stands, Warf Street has no sidewalks, no bike lane, no guardrails to skip over in a panic when some imbecile flies up the dark and twisty route and nudges families and bikes into the ferns. It has, at best, a steep hill on one side and a painted line—with a foot of wiggle room next to the muddy walls—on the other.

We’ll need public non-motorized access to this park and to the Waterfront District someday: that, in my mind, is an absolute fact. The existing Taylor Street dock, our current overwater walkway, gets over 900,000 users per year—by far the most popular “trail” in the County and, whatever your opinion of its aesthetics and environmental impact, a massive asset to both non-motorized transportation and to the tourism, health, recreation, and overall enjoyment of our (awesome) park system.

My proposition, and I think a cursory look at past pages here would confirm this, is that a devoted ramp shooting off the bluff, over the tracks, and into the southernmost end of our future Cornwall Beach Park is an ideal alternative to the (admittedly) long and expensive design proposed for the canceled Overwater Walkway. It could still be a really cool, flashy, addition to our most popular trail and parks—an asset on many levels—but it would cancel the awkwardness, inefficiency, and possible danger of needing to use Warf Street and having to loop into Cornwall Beach Park rather than through it.

It seems a minor point, I know.
But connectivity should be a priority for linking these two massively popular public assets, these biggest of our waterfront parks. I don’t think Warf Street—with its various existing and future design headaches—will ever fit the bill.

We deserve something better, something worthy of nearly a million users per-year, and something carefully designed and thought out.

We should, therefore, endeavor to plant the seed within the City of Bellingham mindhive that a devoted bridge from the S. Bay Trail into Cornwall Beach Park be seriously explored as a goal. Some of these dangling development funds, from Greenways III, could be pinned to that effort.


Tim Paxton  //  Mon, May 23, 2016, 7:28 pm

I am pretty sure that the Lummi Nation already said no, and they meant it.  The over water walkway idea is contingent on the Lummis giving up their traditional fishing and shell fishing rights.  Not likely.  Some people apparently seem to have a hard time wrapping their brains around this concept of Native American treaty or historical rights. 


Geoff Middaugh  //  Tue, May 24, 2016, 6:29 am

First, what Alex said. 

Second, this project had full public support once, and was fully permitted in regards to land use, SEPA, etc. by the State and the City of Bellingham, except for the final building permits.  The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and earlier members of Greenways where in support of the project.  Citizen’s voted to support it in Greenways votes. 

It died a slow death because of local politics, and bureaucratic ineptness.  In early negotiations, the Lummi demanded what the COB wouldn’t give, and whether there was $50,000 involved, I don’t know.  That sounds like post hoc rationalization, and is different from what I heard after 10 years involved with the project and six years on the PRAB supporting it.   

WSDOT originally told the COB they had to get a COE permit, but then later in the process, changed their minds and said they need a Coast Guard bridge permit.  The coast guard was working towards approval, but the Lummi pushed back, within the tribal rights issues of Cherry Point playing in the background.  There were numerous types of mitigation offered, but the COB would not agree with what the Lummi demanded.  I don’t blame the Lummi, because they have a vested right.  I don’t blame the COB, because what was demanded was beyond tribal fishing rights.  But, I do blame WSDOT for their malfeasance, and disingenuous negotiations with the City.  They let the political support for this project erode.  Transportation projects always get approved, or they ignore the tribes position, but recreation projects do not.  Double standards.

In public interest theory, those who support something have broad and shallow difused interests, while those opposed have narrow and deep focus.  We know who prevailed on this one.

For minimally distorted facts on the topic, read the 17 page detailed 2010 Hearing Examiner decision, and the litany of letters by the COE, Coast Guard and numerous contractors.  It’s posted on the COB website. 

But now its time to move on.  I think that the citizens of Bellingham need to get behind the new Greenways Initiative, and make it work for all of Bellingham.  It’s an amazing opportunity, and something too great to lose by fighting over projects and selective rewriting of history. 


John Watts  //  Tue, May 24, 2016, 6:49 pm

It’s been a while since I’ve commented here. My wife’s passing has distracted me. Note June 4 at 2PM her memorial at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship. All come!
————————-
But, this issue really does qualify as an ‘issue’. Some of the earlier comments seem to have become ‘issues’ in their own right; issues of ‘truthiness’, credibility and in-grained, permanently unbalanced, political mind-sets.

I am inclined to agree much more with Mssrs Middaugh and McLean, who seem to actually know what they are talking about, not speculating on pet peeves or prejudices.

This IS an issue that matters, as is the future of the Greenways levy itself. Whether GW-4 becomes a voting matter also matters, as does the Mayor’s alternate idea of a Metropolitan Parks District to create a permanent funding mechanism to insure Bellingham Parks, Trails & Open Space can be maintained, even under inevitable General Fund inadequacies.

Both are important, but taking care of what Bellingham already has, takes precedence.

City Council DOES have the last word on discretionary funds, like Greenways, but ought to listen attentively to PRAB and Greenways Advisory Board to allocate GW $ fairly. They seriously abrogated this responsibility in the purchase of ‘Chuckanut Ridge’. Fortunately, this mis-step has now been mitigated!

The Metro Parks District idea would likely diminish similar susceptibility to political agendas and act more like a dedicated Enterprise Fund Utility. Both funding mechanisms are valuable, and both are probably needed.

My 2 cents…


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