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Senate Poised To Vote On Proposed Infrastructure Deal, Laying Track For Amtrak’s Possible Return To Boise

080521_amtrakupdate_gp.jpg
Tom Banse/Andrew Van Huss
/
Northwest News Network/CC2.0
The Senate is poised to begin voting on a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package this week

As Congress inches forward a $1 trillion-plus national infrastructure deal – after winning some bipartisan support – a generous slice of the enormous pie could go to Amtrak.

In fact, more than $60 billion has been proposed, which would be Amtrak’s biggest federal funding, to date. And that, in turn, is giving some hope that the long-abandoned Pioneer Route might again roll through southern Idaho.

“Senator Crapo has long, long been a passionate advocate for the Pioneer Route,” said Dan Bilka, coordinator of the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Working Group. “And Senator Risch as well. Both of them have been very strong with our efforts on this latest iteration that we’re pushing for.”

Bilka paid a return visit with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the updated effort.

“It's critical for the communities that they serve, whether there be large or small, anywhere from Boise to Pocatello through Shoshone… and beyond.”
Dan Bilka

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Well, there is much anticipation over a proposed $1 trillion infrastructure bill in the nation's capital; and lately there is more optimism than not. After weeks of debate, the White House and a bipartisan group of senators say they have found more common ground. And inside that is about $60 billion for Amtrak, which, yes we can assume, that a good chunk of that would go to the east and mid-Atlantic; but it would also expand rail service elsewhere. And that brings us back to the fact that Boise has not seen Amtrak roll through in nearly a quarter century. So, we're going to circle back around to someone who we look forward to bringing some clarity for us, and that is Dan Bilka, associate board member of the Rail Passengers Association and coordinator of the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Working Group. Dan, good morning.

DAN BILKA: Good morning.

PRENTICE: For the record, we know that there are Amtrak advocates here in Idaho; but more importantly, remind us if we've got champions of trying to bring that service back…in particular, our U.S. senators.

BILKA: Senator Crapo has long, long been a passionate advocate for the Pioneer Route. And Senator Risch, as well. Both of them have been very strong with our efforts on this latest iteration that we're pushing for.

PRENTICE: Let's see if we can put a finer point on this for our listeners. We've heard of a bill that calls on Amtrak to study the Pioneer Route and other abandoned passenger rail routes. And we know from Boise Council President Elaine Clegg that there is some confidence that that bill could make its way through Congress.

archive image of Pioneer Route, circa 1977
Amtrak schedule
Archive image of Pioneer Route, circa 1977

BILKA: That is the Tester amendment introduced by Senator Jon Tester of Montana, which directs the USTA to look at Amtrak long-distance service, and studies that are still looking at predominantly routes that were available in the past, such as the Pioneer, and to look at what the potential possibility is today.

PRENTICE: And Clegg has also said she's spoken with Transportation Secretary Buttigieg and two undersecretarys

BILKA: City Council President Elaine Clegg….she has done a tremendous job there, not only with reaching out for throughout southern Idaho, and into eastern Oregon, but really working with our national partners.

PRENTICE: And I have to ask….is that…is that your dog?

BILKA: Yes.

PRENTICE: OK, so introduce us.

BILKA: His name is Xander.

PRENTICE: Ok, it's always important to give them the respect that they ask for and deserve. So, can you remind us of something that you told me once before, and…see if I got this right: you can get tourists to ride regular passenger trains, but you can't necessarily get passengers to ride a tourist train. What does that mean?

Dan Bilka of Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Working Group
Dan Bilka
Dan Bilka is coordinator of Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Working Group

BILKA: Oh, absolutely. You can get general tourists use passenger trains… like Americans going to Europe or in Asia, to be able to ride the rails and be able to get to their destinations. But you can't get regular sort of passengers to use a tourist operation to get from point A to point B, that you need to have modern intercity passenger rail service.

PRENTICE: And this is really about connecting communities - it's not just a pipe dream.

BILKA: It's critical for the communities that they serve, whether there be large or small, anywhere from Boise to Pocatello through Shoshone… and beyond.

PRENTICE: He is Dan Bilka, coordinator of the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Working Group. And Dan, we look forward to more conversations with you as we all… well, travel forward. So, thank you.

BILKA: Absolutely. Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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