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Idaho sought Amtrak return for a Boise-Salt Lake City rail line. What the feds decided

Boise residents hoping for future passenger rail service to Salt Lake City are again left waiting for their train.

The Idaho-Utah joint proposal to establish a new 340-mile Amtrak line was excluded among the dozens of rail corridors awarded hundreds of thousands in federal dollars for study, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Friday. Passenger trains haven’t run in the Treasure Valley in more than 25 years, and, for now, that cease in operations will continue.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, on an embargoed call Thursday with members of the media, said the Federal Railroad Administration conducted careful review of applications in the push to prioritize large-scale investments in the nation’s transportation network.

“The successful applications were for the corridors that FRA viewed as most prepared for advancement in their planning work,” Buttigieg said. “I think it’s also fair to say that even as these projects advance, it’s not going to be 100% of the answer of a future rail network. What we do have is elements that are going to make for a dramatically improved rail network compared to the one we have today.”

Additional rounds of the funding program will open to study other potential corridors less than 750 miles in length, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The agency’s spokesperson, William Wong, told the Idaho Statesman that applications for the highly competitive program will be accepted again in 2025, and the program will run into 2026.

The decision to leave the Treasure Valley out of the rail projects approved for study frustrated local officials, who for months eagerly awaited word on whether their proposal would be funded and have long sought the return of passenger service.

“While we’re disappointed that Idaho wasn’t awarded the grant, our commitment to returning passenger rail to the Intermountain West remains strong,” Boise Mayor Lauren McLean said in a statement to the Statesman.

Elaine Clegg, CEO of Valley Regional Transit, the Boise-area public transit agency, was discouraged by the news.

”There is a huge opportunity to build momentum with a group that desperately needs a reason to be excited about it,” Clegg told the Statesman by phone, referring to the coalition of local and state leaders who have joined together in the push to bring back passenger trains.

Southern Idaho’s exclusion from funding from President Joe Biden’s administration this year will delay the potential for Amtrak passenger trains in the coming years.

Matt Stoll, executive director of the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, the region’s transportation planning agency, said the Boise area still has opportunities to study passenger rail.

But there is a “limited pot of money available both within the region and across the nation,” Stoll told the Statesman in a phone interview, and federal leaders are looking for high-population density areas where they can get the “best bang for their buck” on rail projects that are close to other metropolitan areas. Boise is “one of the most remote” of the largest 100 metro areas in the country, he added.

National rail investment, but not in Boise

Boise and its surrounding cities haven’t had passenger rail service since the late 1990s. Amtrak ran trains along the Pioneer Line, which included stops in Portland, Boise, Salt Lake City and Denver. The route operated for 20 years before it was discontinued in 1997 as a result of federal budget cuts, and it was targeted partly because of low ridership.

But the effort by state officials and Idaho cities seeks to renew the line, or some derivative of it, and again provide Amtrak service in Southern Idaho. The bipartisan push has support from McLean, as well as Gov. Brad Little, U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson.

“Nearly everyone I talk to has a story about how riding the train connected them with friends and family, school or economic opportunity,” McLean said in her statement. “We know our residents are excited about it. We’re excited about it. And we’ll continue working with partners throughout the region and at the federal level to get it done.”

At a regional rail summit held in Boise in July, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner said the Mountain West is among the areas in the U.S. with significant population growth, and yet have the “most obvious deficit” of access to trains.

“How can we live in the most prosperous nation on Earth and not find ourselves connecting these communities with this incredible, efficient mode of transportation?” he told attendees. “So that’s what we’re here to do. … We need service in many more of the communities that today are simply not on the map.”

Through the federal infrastructure law Biden signed in November 2021, tens of billions of dollars were available to expand the nation’s passenger rail system. Biden, who earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” after taking the train to Washington, D.C., during his 36 years in the U.S. Senate, is an outspoken cheerleader of passenger rail.

Investing in the transportation mode also is an element of the Democratic administration’s attempt to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the use of fossil fuels. The $66 billion guaranteed in the infrastructure law for passenger rail represents the largest investment since Amtrak was created in 1971, according to the White House.

“We’re announcing historic investment in America’s railroads,” Biden said last month in remarks about billions for upgrades to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. “I’ve been talking about this for a long time, I know, but finally, finally, we’re getting it done.”

The Federal Railroad Administration announced plans to study dozens of corridors around the country for improved passenger rail. Boise, which applied for a route connecting the Treasure Valley with Salt Lake City, was not selected.
The Federal Railroad Administration announced plans to study dozens of corridors around the country for improved passenger rail. Boise, which applied for a route connecting the Treasure Valley with Salt Lake City, was not selected.

One study created through the infrastructure law already is reviewing discontinued long-distance Amtrak lines greater than 750 miles, including the old Pioneer Line. The FRA expects to complete the study in 2024, Wong said.

Separately within the infrastructure law, money was set aside to explore intercity rail service corridors with distances of less than 750 miles. States were eligible to apply for $500,000 grants to study establishing new and previous routes.

Regions selected for further study include a line connecting Oregon and Washington with Vancouver, Canada, as well as a Colorado route linking the cities of Fort Collins to Pueblo, the U.S. Transportation Department announced. The total funded in this round of rail projects was up to $34.5 million.

The Biden administration also announced $8.2 billion in funding for a high-speed rail line connecting Southern California with Las Vegas, and other projects on the East Coast.

In addition to its Boise-Salt Lake City line application with Idaho, Utah’s transportation agencies applied for a route from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas. That line also did not receive funding for study.

Wong declined to offer specifics about why certain rail projects were funded over others. He said the FRA received 91 eligible applications.

For those projects that failed to receive funding this time around, all should not be considered lost, Wong said, since communities will have opportunities to reapply. Project sponsors that were rejected this time around will be given feedback about how to improve their applications for future funding decisions, he said.

“This is a new development program that is pretty unprecedented on how we approach railroad development,” he said. “This first round is a framework of what the passenger rail network will become and how FRA will develop, expand and improve it.”