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Many Roadblocks To Reviving Passenger Rail In Southern Idaho

Amtrak television commercials in the 1980s showed children playing with toy trains in their bedrooms, urging Americans to ride the rails for family vacations.

Riders in Chicago, the Northeast or along the I-5 corridor out west still have that travel option. But in Southern Idaho, the only trains you see carry potatoes, lumber and other raw materials — not passengers.

“We hear from a lot of people, you know, in rural areas where there are trains that very much want to keep them,” said Jon Nuxoll of Eugene, Oregon.

Nuxoll leads a group called AORTA: the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates. Last month, the group organized a meeting in LaGrande, meant to promote lobbying efforts for reviving passenger rail service between Portland and Boise. That’s a portion of what was previously called the Pioneer Line, an Amtrak run which connected Portland with Salt Lake City via Boise, and on to Denver and Chicago.

“We think the best way forward is to get a study bill in both Idaho and Oregon about what this would cost,” Nuxoll said.  

Meeting attendees in LaGrande included representatives of ‘All Aboard Washington,’ a similar group of rail enthusiasts working to reconnect parts of Washington State with passenger rail service. They provided ideas on how to best promote the ideas to politicians.

Nuxoll estimates more than 150 people attended that meeting, which exceeded expectations — but these efforts have been tried before. 

Shortly after Amtrak ended Pioneer Line service in 1997, advocates rallied support for short trains primarily carrying U.S. Mail and parcels along with limited passenger service. That plan went nowhere.

In 2008, Idaho Senator Mike Crapo was among several sponsors of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, part of which required Amtrak to study restoration of the Pioneer Line. 

Then, Amtrak concluded it would take nearly $400 million just to revive and improve infrastructure, and ticket revenue from passengers would cover less than one-third the annual operating cost. 

So where would that money come from? The answer may be in another element of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), according to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

“It said the states are the point of origination for routes shorter than 750 miles. Enthusiasts like the idea. We like the idea of running more trains, more places, more often, but the states are in charge of that.”

A spokesman for Senator Crapo said his office asked for a one-year test run of the pioneer line in 2009, just to prove the public would support it. Conversations stalled over funding. 

“I'm not sure a year's long enough,” Magliari said. “But if the states come to us and say, 'We want to do a trial or a pilot service that runs along those ways,' you bet we'd have that conversation with them.”

Republican State Senator Chuck Winder represents west Ada County’s District 20. He also sits on the senate transportation committee. 

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Winder said. “Even if you had a plan that was in place and says, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ it’s going to take some time, it’s going to take some money to have the kind of system people are going to use."

The Idaho Transportation department crafted the most current state rail plan in 2013. It identifies restoring the Pioneer Line and other local passenger rail projects as goals, and it lists feasibility studies for those projects as a priority. But no studies have been done. Similar studies in Washington State cost $250,000.

Funding the train would only be part of the equation. Logistically, it may be more difficult to properly schedule passenger trains on busy freight tracks. Union Pacific owns the majority of the rails between Portland and Salt Lake City and says it’s already near capacity for freight service. Passenger trains get priority on the tracks, but capacity issues could impact speed, timing and reliability, said Amtrak’s Magliari.

“Do they have enough capacity for us to get through and around their freight trains to run reliably on an attractive schedule? That's not a terribly relevant transportation mode if you're passing through there between midnight and 3:00 a.m.,” Magliari said in a phone interview.

Meeting Union Pacific’s needs for freight traffic could mean double-tracking hundreds of new miles — a goal listed in the state rail plan, but likely a huge cost in addition to the $400 million Amtrak said it needed a decade ago.

Nuxoll remains optimistic.

“I think the next step is to see if and how local folks work for this; contacting their legislators, forming local chapters [and] local advocacy groups to bird-dog this.”

Politicians, train companies and citizen advocates all say they want to see passenger rail return to this area. But no one has volunteered to pick up the bulk of the tab. 

Nuxoll says finding a way to fund new feasibility studies by 2021 would be a win, as the issue probably won’t gain speed in the 2020 Oregon Legislative session, due to the state’s alternating years of 35-day 'short sessions' in even-numbered years. Lawmakers are limited in the number of bills they can introduce in a short session year.

But, Oregon can’t do it without political support from Idaho and likely Utah as well. Rail supporters should be prepared for the long haul.

For more local news, follow the KBSX newsroom on Twitter @KBSX915

Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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