Civil Society

The Battle Over the Burke-Gilman Trail

Decades of fighting, lawsuits, and an altercation on the Ballard waterfront: How one little path divides a neighborhood.

By Allison Williams June 19, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Mike O’Brien had never been in a fight. Not the physical kind. So when strangers forcefully escorted the eight-year city council member out of a Nordic Museum gala after-party on Ballard’s waterfront in May, he was a little scared but mostly confused.

Seattle politics may be known for many things—torpor, taxes—but physical altercations have never been one of them. The hands-on disinvitation came from Doug Dixon, general manager of Pacific Fisherman Shipyard, which hosted the party. What got Dixon so heated? A bike trail.

The 20-mile Burke-Gilman Trail sits atop an old railroad line, paved into a pedestrian and cycling path in 1978. The bucolic passage is as much a Seattle landmark as Puget Sound or Lake Washington; it even connects the two. Except for a mile-and-a-half Ballard section known as the Missing Link.

Filling the Burke-Gilman gap has been a city bugaboo for decades. The deadlock comes down to an almost unknowable question: Would a formal path along Ballard’s waterfront drive away maritime industry? Business owners say yes. Trail proponents say no. Even when one side budges, nothing progresses.

The last decade or so of fighting has been over the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS; every time the city filed motions to bypass the EIS, the Ballard Coalition, a group of local business owners and unions, including one that Pacific Fisherman belongs to, sued. A full EIS was released in 2017, and the coalition filed again; after the hearing examiner ruled in the city’s favor, the group appealed. The Burke-Gilman, says O’Brien, “could be the poster child of the Seattle Process.” 


Last fall Warren Aakervik, former owner of Ballard Oil, sat behind the wheel of a WB-67, the kind of lumbering industrial truck that makes daily deliveries along Shilshole Avenue, planned site of the Missing Link. Aakervik pulled slowly into a driveway, navigating a network of orange traffic cones that sketched the city’s most recent plan for the Burke-Gilman trail. Below, senior policy director Blake Trask of Cascade Bicycle Club rode a bike, standing in for future B-G cyclists. This was only a test.

Cameras mounted in the truck cab recorded what Aakervik could see from his high driver’s perch, recording as spectators and even Trask disappeared from view into his blind spots.

Months later, Aakervik is glum as he replays the video. For years he was part of the Ballard Coalition suing the city; last year he came to the table to join the Design Advisory Committee in hopes of making his point heard: Trail plus trucks means tragedy.

“If I’m right, people will die because the design does not protect them,” he says. Then, he claims, a domino effect could bring down the waterfront industries—who’s going to insure drivers who dodge an asteroid belt of cyclists and pedestrians daily?

Aakervik’s Ballard Oil fuels the Seattle-based Alaskan fishing fleet. Nearby businesses are similarly blue collar. “Do you know how long it would take for them all to be gone?” he asks. “Vroom.” A heartbeat.


The city's formation of the Design Advisory Committee reshuffled the cards once again, and compromise followed. The new plan moves one section from waterfront-adjacent 54th Street to Market Street. Still, he says, the Shilshole segment should be relocated east to Ballard or Leary Avenues.

Years into planning, trail advocates disagree. “This is possibly the most well-vetted trail project in the nation,” says Trask, citing studies that show the plan’s traffic-control measures—flashing lights, textured trail surfaces—represent best safety practices. “This is overwhelmingly supported by Seattleites. Why haven’t we done it?”

The specter of dying industries, Trask says, is hyperbole; 60 percent of the construction budget that improves Shilshole Avenue will improve freight traffic. “This is a project that will float all boats.”

Things are already dangerous, he says: “The current status quo—it sends approximately two people a month to the emergency room,” especially beneath the Ballard Bridge, where no trail yet exists. Without a proper Burke-Gilman in Ballard, say proponents, carnage isn’t a cautionary tale, it’s reality.

Dixon, who ushered O’Brien from the party, isn’t backing down. He’s angered that some roadwork costs aren’t factored into the public trail budget, hiding the expense—a move he calls “a little shell game.” Internal emails from Cascade Bicycle Club that emerged during the latest lawsuit prove, to his eyes, that the cyclists’ goal is to rid the waterfront of industry.

And that scuffle with O’Brien? Dixon says he led the council member to the door after asking him to leave twice, but “there were no goons,” he says. “There was no shoving.”

The lawsuit appeal remains with the King County Superior Court, and it’ll likely be months before the Burke-Gilman project lurches forward—or backward. Lawyer Josh Brower, who’s represented the business interests since his college-bound daughter was in preschool, calls the trail “a battle for Seattle’s soul.” They’re passionate words, even if they’re not fighting ones.

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