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Burke-Gilman Missing Link: 18 years and millions lost to history

October 5, 2017


Recently I enjoyed a long, slow motorcycle ride on a sunny Sunday afternoon through our 36th Legislative District in Seattle’s northwest neighborhoods. It was ironically relaxing to traverse in my own thoughts through our district’s exploding maze of growth from Amazon skyscrapers in Belltown to the beauty of Discovery Park in Magnolia to the quiet Blue Ridge neighborhood to the building boom in Greenwood.

On that ride, I was reminded once again of one major infrastructure project where progress is paralyzed, where reason has been crushed by politics, where taxpayers continue to lose a fortune and lawyers seem the only victors: The Burke-Gilman missing link.

Since major steps in 1996 and 2003, bicycle advocates, maritime industry leaders and others have been unable to reach consensus about a win-win route to complete the wildly-popular Burke-Gilman trail for bicyclists, joggers and pedestrians. And the City of Seattle has elected to hide behind classically cliche ‘Seattle process’ to avoid taking a stand on the weather to move forward. Beyond the negative stereotype, however, is a very real invoice for taxpayers to the tune of millions. And we seem no closer to resolution than years and millions of dollars ago.

The question on the table is whether the route should cut directly through a key section of the working waterfront maritime sector of Ballard or meander a few blocks away from the water along less industrial streets. Is it too dangerous? Is it too inconvenient? Both legitimate questions that have lingered for years and cost millions with no end in sight.

A Seattle Times editorial in June of 2017 outlined the issue thoroughly, and called for a negotiated settlement between the parties and the city.  I cannot stress how much I agree with this approach and would amplify the frustration that years and millions continue to be wasted with virtually no anticipated success for anyone.  This is not a euphemism for choosing one side over the other, it is a reality check that our lack of willingness to elevate this issue into more formal political negotiations and reach an agreement is costing the city the public’s confidence and credibility as well as money.

I find the issue almost a symbolic representation of the frustration that surfaces when process and political inaction overcomes reason. The first city plan was released in 1996, and materially revised in 2003.  Lawsuits have ensured on and off ever since.  We’ve spent a fortune and seem no closer to resolution despite announcements to the contrary. To this day our city attorney’s office is spending hundreds of thousands a year in outside counsel fees for a case that seems destined to require a negotiated settlement regardless. The city’s EIS alone cost $2.5 million and five years. The Move Seattle levy is funding part of the project with other sources contributing as well.

The broader disagreement and lack of resolution over the route to complete the ‘missing link’ in Ballard has gone on longer than the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in United States history.

I deeply respect the complexity of the design issues and challenges, and I can appreciate the legitimate arguments on both sides that due deserve public understanding.  Bicyclists want a contiguous recreational experience. Maritime businesses and officials want Seattle to walk the talk about industrial job infrastructure.  It is, however, the lack of a constructive political forcing function that is frustrating. We need to choose to move forward and make it a priority.

Public officials should elevate the dialogue in the community to move forward with a negotiated settlement. The lawyers, planners, activists and businesses will not move without grown up oversight and responsible efforts to reach a settlement. I don’t know whether it is too much pride or money that is at stake, but both seem to be out of control.

It is time for our current and next mayor to make this dispute a public policy priority by bringing the parties together outside of the courtroom. The only way through it is through it together.

Your partner in service,


7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2017 6:26 am

    One little nit to pick in an otherwise great article. You wrote “Bicyclists want a contiguous recreational experience.” This trail is not just about recreation. The Burke is used quite extensively as a transportation corridor. Completing the missing link would offer west Ballard residents another transportation option, in addition to being a nice place for a recreational ride, walk, or run.

  2. Kelsey Mesher permalink
    October 5, 2017 8:49 am

    The City is leading a collaborate design process, inviting all stakeholders to the table and hashing out solutions — very close to what you’re describing:

    The Seattle Times endorsed this process when the Westlake cycle track was being developed:

    There are many opportunities for the public to weigh in, including an open house and walking tour next weekend:

  3. scott anderson permalink
    October 5, 2017 9:51 am

    We all want to finish the missing link. It needs to go in a safe place for a reasonable cost. Shilshole ave is an unsafe industrial district. Leary Way is the best and safest route. There are 55 industrial drive ways on Shilshole ave. Large trucks pass through these drive ways many times a day. I wish the City of Seattle would listen to the working water front businesses and workers. We pay tax’s and work hard. Why is our voice not heard?

  4. Dee Ann Evans permalink
    October 5, 2017 1:32 pm

    As a resident and employee on Shilshole Ave NW, (I also ride my bike) I am certain that Leary Way is safer and more logical choice for the missing link. There are over sized sidewalks and more businesses that would benefit from casual bike riders. Shilshole, all the way to Fred Meyer is all Maritime Industries with bay doors and large entrances for LARGE trucks to enter. I was at one of the meetings and was told the decision was also made by the public response which was mainly post cards already filled out from a booth at the Ballard Market. The information which was given to the people who walked up to the booth (I was one of them) was that if it wasn’t on Shilshole the Ballard Sunday Market would probably have to close. They were also told that Leary was not a viable option. I have asked the city employees which are making these decisions if they have taken a boat ride down the ship canal to see the industry and residents that make up this area, not one has. No one has come to us when making this decision.

  5. Ballard Resident permalink
    October 6, 2017 3:34 pm

    As a long term Ballard resident and home owner I’m appalled at the businesses that have wasted the tax dollars I’ve paid just because they feel they have the right to foster unsafe conditions for those of us that do not drive. That area is a mess.

    Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel is the problem. Pure greed and little regard for the community as a whole. Shilshole is a public road that should serve all residents.

  6. BGT trail user permalink
    October 14, 2017 2:05 pm

    I’d suggest traveling on the Burke Gilman trail by your choice of non motorized vehicle or on foot. The section between the Locks and Golden Gardens is a perfect spot to see all types of people enjoying the trail. I usually encounter more joggers and dog walkers than bicycles on my regular jaunts to Golden Gardens. Perhaps while using the trail you could take time to talk with your constituents who regularly use the trail.

    The appellants to the lawsuit think that this is just about bicycles and don’t realize it’s a mixed use trail. Their “solution” is a cycle track on Leary that leaves other users to fend for themselves. Leary is not safe because of the number of intersections that must be crossed. Unfortunately there are many Ballard drivers that do not watch for pedestrians legally crossing intersections. Nearly all the incidents I’ve had with cars are when I’m legally crossing as a pedestrian in a crosswalk and a driver is turning left or right. South Shilshole Ave. has less intersections, less traffic and will have clearly marked drive ways. Have you seen the current conditions on Shilshole Ave? There is no sidewalk on the south side, cars are parked in a disorganized fashion (even on the active railroad tracks) and the side of the road has huge dirt potholes.

    Even if the trail were constructed a few blocks away, Shilshole Ave. still needs to be redeveloped to make it save for everyone. The city has a duty to provide safe infrastructure for everyone. People will still use Shilshole even if the trail is located somewhere else. It’s part of our neighborhood and community. I understand it’s a challenging place to have a sand and gravel business but they need to face the fact that they are surrounded by residential areas and that they have many negative impacts to those areas. We deal with their traffic, pollution and use of public roads without much benefit to us, the local residents. The least they can do is mitigate their impact by working with us instead of against us. I’ve owned a home in Ballard for 20 years so as a local tax payer I should be able to use public streets in my neighborhood and the city should provide safe infrastructure to all residents as well as businesses.

    Check out this ruling by the state appellate court that says cities must make roads safe for cyclists.

    Besides writing a blog post, what have you done to improve the situation? Are you coming to the open house this Thursday or the tour on Saturday? I would like to talk with you if you do decide to attend so that I can get a better understanding of whether you’ve done anything to help improve the situation. This would help me to decide whether I should vote for you in the future.

  7. Ole Johnson permalink
    February 21, 2018 11:05 am

    This situation reminds me of the white settlers during the Westward Migration.
    The new settlers insist they have a right to any land they deem fit, regardless of the wishes of the existing people.
    The rallying cry seems to be I am from California and I want to ride my bike there. Nothing else will do.
    Why can’t you leave the Industrial area alone? The settlers have built silly ass condos and trendy restaurants and have ruined the rest af Ballard.
    Why can’t you leave the last remaining part of Maritime Ballard in Peace and divert around Shilshole.

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