The Riding Reporter: the Ballard bikes vs freight debate
Anyone who has ever gone for a bike ride or walk on the Burke-Gilman Trail heading west towards Golden Gardens will likely have stopped at Fred Meyer in Ballard and looked around confused about where to go next.
The trail goes missing for about 1.5 miles before it picks up again at the Hiram Chittenden Locks to guide people toward Golden Gardens park.
Where the trail is missing, cyclists are guided with the help of sharrows on a rough, narrow road that crosses dangerous railroad tracks and is mostly used by trucks. Pedestrians are left to find their own way altogether.
This section of the Burke-Gilman Trail is known as "The Missing Link", a stalled transportation project that has become one of the city's longest running disputes between trail enthusiasts and the opposing Ballard companies such as Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel and Ballard Oil.
Looking at this issue in depth, I find that this is far more complex than a dispute over space and road use. It's the location of the proposed trail that brings about concerns of safety, liability and even the survival of an entire industry.
The common goal is safety and separating modes of transport. The debate is on how and where.
I decided to take a ride with Warren Aakervik of Ballard Oil to see this issue from his point-of-view. I parked my bike and climbed in the cabin of a 70,000 pound freight truck loaded with lube oil.
"I don't want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution as much as I can within the parameters of running my business," said Aakervik.
Ballard Oil is located along the old tracks on NW 54th Street. A street where heavy trucks head up and down narrow driveways to load and unload their freight. This street is the site of the Burke-Gilman Trail proposed connector, linking the existing trail at the Locks with the rest of the proposed connector along Shilshole Avenue.
"You know that if the city wins the appeal they're going to build that first," Aakervik said as he maneuvered the truck out of his steep and narrow driveway.
"I live in fear of having an accident happen with one of my vehicles. If I back up and run into a cyclist, or even if I'm standing still and a cyclist runs into me, I have to defend myself. Insurance said in the future I would be non-insurable or the price would be prohibitive if an incident were to happen," said Aakervik.
Aakervik said neither the city nor the public seems to understand the importance of having a freight corridor for fishing industry businesses.
"It's an important fabric of this country. Each boat is a business in itself," Aakervik said. "Every commercial fishing boat you see puts $1 million into the economy. And where does this industry get service?"
Ballard Oil and Covich & Williams are the only two commercial marine fuel services companies left along the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
Ballard Oil alone services the Alaskan fishing fleet with millions of gallons of fuel every year. This fuel needs to be transported to and from Ballard yet between construction and road limitations, there's only one corridor left for these trucks: Alaskan Way along the waterfront.
Aakervik said that when the issue of continuing operations for the commercial marine fuel industry was presented to Mayor McGinn, his solution was, simply put, relocation.
"It's interesting that the city has no interest in [this business] and the public is more interested in personal enjoyment with little regard to the future," Aakervik said. "Do I care about the future of this community? You're damn right I do."
"McGinn's idea is to create congestion to get people out of their cars and I don't want to be on these roads if I don't have to. I don't want to create more congestion," he continued.
Taking me on a ride to Harbor Island, Aakervik showed me what it means to run his business and the obstacles he faces in terms of transportation. It's about ten miles from Ballard to Harbor Island yet Aakervik said a round trip can take a few hours.
With construction on Westlake, new center lane bus stops on Dexter Avenue, and the limitations of taking fuel on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the only route to take is Alaskan Way along the waterfront, where bicyclists, tourists, taxis and buses all share a narrow two-lane road.
But before we even arrive on Alaskan Way, we witness a bicycle crash.
On the corner of Broad Street and Alaskan Way, a cyclist coming off the Elliot Bay Trail was so focused on cutting in front of the big Ballard Oil truck that he neither stopped nor looked to his right for oncoming traffic and ran right into a stopped car. The cyclist flew over his handlebars and landed awkwardly on the unforgiving asphalt. He was clutching his hamstring but seemed mostly unharmed.
Aakervik could not have asked for a better example to illustrate his point. Had we not been moving as slow as we were, this accident could have ended badly for the cyclist.
"It's hard to stop with 70,000 or 80,000 pounds when a cyclist cuts in front but bicyclists are actually pretty respectful when they see something like these," Aakervik said.
"This guy's attention was so directed at me that he didn't look where he was going. Why would you not obey the law knowing your life is in jeopardy?"
Aakervik said despite people's opinion, he is not anti-bicycles.
"It sounds funny but I believe in bicycles," he said. "The more bicycles, the fewer cars and more space for people who have to use it. But we need to quit putting modes of transport in conflict."
I could not agree with Aakervik more as we were moving at 15 miles per hour along a packed Alaskan Way. There were cyclists on either side of the street, tourists crossing the street at free will and taxis taking over the right lane to meet the passengers of a cruise ship that had just docked.
Not only did the situation seem hazardous, it was flat out inefficient. We have to separate modes of transport in corridors like these.
By the time we reached Harbor Island, we'd been traveling for 45 minutes to cover 10 miles. On the return to Ballard, we took the viaduct as the the truck was not hazardous. It made a significant difference as we arrived at Ballard Oil in about 20 minutes.
If the Burke-Gilman Trail gets built in front of Aakervik's business, his travel time will increase as will the potential for accidents. Consequently, it could put the entire Ballard maritime business in jeopardy.
"I only have a problem with bikes when someone's recreation cuts into my livelihood and creates dangerous situations," he said.
"It doesn't have to be a conflict between cycling and freight. I just need a viable, predictable transportation quarter. If we don't get a transportation corridor and protection from liability of the Burke-Gilman, we won't be here in five years."
For more information on the Missing Link debate, please visit our previous coverage.
The Riding Reporter is a feature series in which BNT's bike-riding reporter, Anne-Marije Rook takes, takes interviewees on a short bike ride around town to talk bicycles, transit, and any other issues that may arise when seeing the city from a two-wheeled point of view. Previous interviewees include Mayor Mike McGinn, ultra-cyclist Chris Ragsdale, bike messenger world champion Craig Etheridge, Chuck Ayer from Cascade Bicycle Club, and more.