By Erica C. Barnett
When Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss announced, earlier this month, that he had come up with a plan to break a 29-year deadlock and complete the long-delayed Burke-Gilman Trail through Ballard, the response from local outlets who have covered the battle over the years ranged from mild praise to rapturous enthusiasm.
Seattle Bike Blog said Strauss’ proposed “Leary Alternative,” which would avoid conflicts with the industrial businesses that have stalled the trail’s completion with legal tactics for decades, marked “the biggest development in the Missing Link saga in years,” but noted that it could “spell doom” for a straightforward trail extension along Shilshole, the “missing link” of the trail. On the ecstatic end of the spectrum, the Stranger raved, “By God, Dan Strauss May Have Done It” in a piece touting Strauss’ plan to “satisfy everyone who’s had soooo much to say for the past two [sic] decades.”
Longtime bike advocates, however, noticed something about the plan: It wasn’t new. In fact, the city already painstakingly studied a very similar proposal, also known as the Leary Alternative, in a 2016 draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). The DEIS evaluated several plans to complete the Missing Link, including the Shilshole route, and concluded that Leary could be less safe for cyclists than the Shilshole option, in part because it included 13 intersections where cars and trucks would have to drive directly across the path.
“A connection on Leary that is built is safer than a connection on Shilshole that is never built.”—City Councilmember Dan Strauss
That’s “the most [intersections] of any of the alternative routes and substantially more than any existing portion of the [Burke-Gilman Trail], potentially making it a less desirable route for bicyclists and other trail users,” according to the DEIS—and potentially delaying trail users an average of 15-25 seconds when vehicles periodically block the trail. The Leary Alternative would also require sacrificing sidewalk space along parts of Market St., and could slow down buses on six different King County Metro routes, the report concluded.
Strauss says his plan, which shortens the distance bikes would spend alongside busy Leary Way by several blocks compared to the original Leary option, could be the breakthrough that resolves an apparently intractable conflict. “A connection on Leary that is built is safer than a connection on Shilshole that is never built,” Strauss said. Since the debate over the missing link began, the city completed work on a three-block stretch of path between 24th Ave. NW and the Ballard Locks; if that stretch had been completed in 2004, Strauss said, he wouldn’t have been riding his bike on the street several blocks north and gotten hit by a car.
Strauss also argues that Ballard has changed dramatically since advocates first started pushing for a trail along Shilshole three decades ago. “Ballard has gotten more dense,” he said. “We used to have industrial businesses on Market, Leary, Ballard [Ave. NW] and Shilshole, and in today’s Ballard, Market, Leary, and Ballard are almost exclusively commercial while Shilshole remains almost completely industrial.” The DEIS remarked on this transformation seven years ago, noting that a trail along Market and Leary “would run through [a] busy commercial district, which would provide a different recreational experience”—with more people going in and out of businesses on foot, for example—than the rest of the Burke-Gilman Trail.
“There’s a lot going on, and a lot of opportunities for conflict. Any [Leary Way NW] design would have to be really aggressive in prioritizing the safe movement of people on bikes, people walking, as well as all the other people using the space for other purposes.”—Cascade Bicycle Club policy director Vicky Clarke
“There’s a lot going on, and a lot of opportunities for conflict” along Market and Leary, said Vicky Clarke, the policy director for Cascade Bicycle Club. “Any design would have to be really aggressive in prioritizing the safe movement of people on bikes, people walking, as well as all the other people using the space for other purposes,” like crossing from parking spaces to stores ad waiting for the bus.
The proposed route also includes a large number of utility poles that the trail will have to “wiggle around,” Clarke said. “When you’re designing around a bus stop or utility poles or businesses, it has the potential to erode the user experience, safety, and comfort, so there’s a lot of challenges to designing this route.”
Strauss has asked Mayor Bruce Harrell and Seattle Department of Transportation director Greg Spotts to study his alternative using money set aside to complete the trail. But even if the city decides to end the “missing link” impasse by building a revamped Leary alternative, Clarke notes that “there’s still going to be people biking on Shilshole because it’s the most simple and direct route to connect with the existing Burke-Gilman, so there still need to safety improvements along Shilshole.” Strauss says he agrees, and would start by fixing the variable pavement—which at different points consists of concrete, asphalt, and gravel—and provide better signage for driveways and parking spaces instead of the plastic drums and poorly marked gravel lots that serve those purposes now.
Clarke said the changes to Shilshole will need to go beyond flatter pavement and better signage. For example? Well, she said, “there’s a really good design for a trail.”