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Boise may lure Amtrak back – with a lot of help from Salt Lake City

A collage featuring the front face of a train, a head shot of Bre Brush and the Boise Depot tower.
Boise State Public Radio, Bre Brush
Bre Brush is transportation advisor to Boise Mayor Lauren McLean

Not too long after Amtrak rolled away from the Boise Depot in 1997 – effectively ending regular passenger service to the Treasure Valley – there have been several efforts to reintroduce the service. Supporters of those efforts would admit they didn’t get too far beyond the conversation stage. But something in 2022 is very, very different.

Number 1: The massive Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act became law; and a big piece of that pie was significant investment in public transportation.

Number 2: Federal regulators and Amtrak are now particularly interested in what they’re calling a “Corridor ID” program. Simply put, they’d like to introduce or revive routes of 750 miles or less.

And that’s why the cities of Boise and Salt Lake City are partnering to bring a piece of the old Pioneer Line back to the region, which would not only bring service back to Boise, but also to much of southern Idaho.

“So, for us, our interest really lies in a Salt Lake metro to Boise Metro area as a connection,” said Bre Brush, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean’s chief advisor on transportation. “Mayor McLean has spoken with Mayor Mendenhall in Salt Lake City about how our two communities can work together.”

Brush visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the Corridor ID program, what we might expect to see in the coming weeks, and how important it was for Boise to “raise our hand.”

“There's such broad support for it, I think, because people realize how cool it would be to have trains again. But it's also a really important part of our regional economy and interstate commerce.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Well, we've been reporting on efforts to bring Amtrak service back to southern Idaho since…. well, since not too long after Amtrak last pulled out of Boise, but that was 1997. But there is a new strategy. So, let's bring in Bre Brush, someone who knows about this as much as anyone at Boise City Hall. She is the mayor's transportation advisor. Bre Brush. Good morning.

BRE BRUSH: Morning, George.

PRENTICE: So if you could give us a description… a layperson's description… of what the Federal Rail Administration calls. I want to make sure I have this right, “The Corridor ID” program.

BRUSH: The Corridor ID program is one of the new sets of programs available for rail that came through the bipartisan infrastructure law earlier this year. And what's great about this one is this initial step that we took to learn more about the Corridor program was a simple raise our hand, no financial commitment. We want to learn more about how we bring back passenger rail service to Idaho. And the program is intended to develop a pipeline of projects so the Federal Rail Administration can guide their investments over the next few years to develop a really full and robust passenger rail service network. So that first step, raising our hands, saying “We are ready to engage, we want Boise to be a part of this,” was submitting a letter of interest and that has been taking up our time over the last few months, trying to build a broad coalition of supporters to join us in submitting that letter.

PRENTICE: And key to this is, if I have this right, is that its initial service would be 750 miles or less.

BRUSH: Those are the requirements for the program to submit a “city pair” to this program. All it has to be is, either a route that was formerly operated by Amtrak or a new route that is less than 750 miles. So, for us, our interest really lies in a Salt Lake metro to Boise Metro area as a connection.

PRENTICE: And for some of us, we remember that as being part of the old Pioneer route.

BRUSH: That is a portion of the old Pioneer Line.

PRENTICE: So where are we with that? Salt Lake City has to be on board.

BRUSH: And over the last few months, Mayor McClean has spoken with Mayor Mendenhall in Salt Lake City about how our two communities can work together. And we attended a meeting in Salt Lake with the Salt Lake officials who are putting together their letter of interest for this. And that meeting was attended by Amtrak, and we had a similar meeting here in Boise and in Pocatello with Amtrak. So, we've been trying to be in close coordination with them so that we are aligned in this coalition and this effort.

PRENTICE: I've been hearing that a lot more public leaders are on board here in Idaho – our congressional delegation, a number of mayors and county officials.

BRUSH: We were really excited about all the folks we had interested in this. It's something that there's such broad support for, I think, because people realize, No. 1,  bhow cool it would be to have trains again. But it's also a really important part of our regional economy and our interstate commerce. What we heard from some folks in smaller cities in eastern Idaho that have airport service losses is that this could be a really important piece for their residents to reach the rest of the state and of course, into the Wasatch Front as well. So, we spoke with cities from Caldwell to Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Twin Falls all along that potential line to see who might want to join us in just exploring this.

PRENTICE: I want to get back to something you just mentioned: Amtrak officials were in town. That has to be the best kept secret outside of city hall. So, they were in town… when? A couple of weeks ago?

BRUSH: Yeah, at the end of August. And it was really exciting. One of my colleagues here in the mayor's office and I were attending a conference in Billings, Montana, dedicated to passenger rail. And we had known that Amtrak was going to be at this conference. And we organized a trip on the way back from this conference to stop with Amtrak in Pocatello and then end the week in Boise so that we could have them be available to answer people's questions. Because really, what it's about for folks is the details. How are we going to get a stop here? When is the service going to be? And those are things that we can't answer initially, but Amtrak has the experience. So, as we head into applying for an RFP to officially launch this program, we can get some of those questions answered by Amtrak now, which are things we will learn later.

PRENTICE: So, RFP - a request for proposal.  What does that mean? You would look for… well, are there companies that do analyses on this?

BRUSH: There are. And we do not know the full details of this. What will be in this request for proposals yet? Because, like I said, it's brand-new program and there's a lot to be determined. But we think those this RFP to be released sometime in the next couple of months is what we're told will be the real details of it. What does your service look like? How much does it cost? Where are stops? Those are things that we think will be developed as part of this RFP.

PRENTICE: Even anecdotally, is there a way to anticipate possible ridership?

BRUSH: That's hard to say. I think the best way we could is by looking at other Amtrak service routes that might be in similarly sized metros. But it is it is hard to say, and especially if you're if you have any overnight service, which this short line likely wouldn't. But it's just hard to say.

PRENTICE: But I'd be naive if I didn’t think that this could be a domino… which is to say if it does happen, we could then say, well, our next goal might be then to connect West. Heading toward Portland, right?

BRUSH: Definitely. And the bipartisan infrastructure law had many new programs for rail and one of the requirements for a different program, I can't remember the name right now, but was that the FRA would have to study all previous historical Amtrak routes? So that includes the Pioneer which went all the way to Portland. So, these two things are going in tandem. We have this short line effort that we're really excited about for the region, but certainly it will go beyond and there's more work being done to support the pioneer line as well.

PRENTICE: Can I assume that when Amtrak was in town that the Boise Depot was definitely part of the tour? And it has to be a plus, right?

BRUSH: Definitely, yes. We had we had a meeting with I think there were about 40 folks there, different mayors, business organizations. Some of the universities were represented and congressional delegation staff attended. And this was where we hosted Amtrak and really afforded the opportunity to ask them questions about service. But we hosted that at the depot, and we did a tour afterwards and they commented, one, how great it was that we owned our depot, but two, just how beautiful it is. Right? It's a Boise gem. And to showcase that in something like passenger rail service, I think would be a huge hit.

PRENTICE: Bre, I'm fascinated by what you do for a living. What do you tell a stranger what you do?

BRUSH: That's a good question. I guess my canned line is that I work in the mayor's office supporting… making it easier to bike and walk for Boise residents, because that is really what I get to do every day.

PRENTICE: So if I were to go down the track a little further and let's say the day does come that we are successful in getting Amtrak service back to the depot. Wouldn't it make sense then to have some kind of regular connector between the depot and the downtown Valley Regional Transit Center?

BRUSH: Absolutely. I mean, I think this is only the beginning. We probably can't even dream up all of the connections that will be possible once we are able to establish this baseline framework for infrastructure, for rail, the potential to connect, like you said, West to Portland, going down to the Wasatch Front. We know Salt Lake wants to get all the way to Vegas. So, is it Boise even all the way through to Vegas? There's so much potential. But for our Valley, I think this will be an exciting catalyst for even more transportation options. We have residents that are so fluid between all of our communities here in the Treasure Valley, even thinking beyond to getting folks to Mountain Home, airmen that live in Boise, Aaron, they live in Caldwell. I think this is just so much potential for our region.

PRENTICE: Do you have a general time frame for an RFP? Can I assume it would happen before the end of the year?

BRUSH: We expect to see that RFP before the end of the year. And our next step is really engaging closely with our state to determine what the best path forward is for our state to be positioned to take advantage of this. Now what that means is we need to get our state leaders in the room and figure out what kind of legislative actions might be necessary for this. Do we need a working group? Do we need some kind of support from the legislature or from the State Department of Transportation to get this going? That will be a key next step that our team will take in between the RFP being issued and let's say next year.

PRENTICE: Honestly, what you have going for you already is the fact that you've got political leaders of all stripes, including the congressional delegation, who seem to be on the same team.

BRUSH: And that can only help us. Right. We're excited to have them on board. And we have the knowledge and experience, having served in multiple administrations that have different investments in infrastructure to help support us in pursuing this.

PRENTICE: Bre, I was looking at my old notes and I found a story that I wrote in 2005 on a similar effort that said, this is very unique and the fact that it is rather specific that 750 miles or less and that two cities apply together as partners.

BRUSH: Yes, for sure. We have this unique opportunity with new funding. We also have, I think, a broader coalition than before. We have folks who are really experiencing just some. The strains of growth in looking for a solution for transportation. And this is this is short shoreline passenger rail service. Sure. But I think people are ready to go into something new and innovative and see how it could support us as a region.

PRENTICE: And it's so interesting that it has now been a generation since we've had regular rail service. That said, we have a lot of people who now live here, and their expectation is rather simple to say, “Hey, where's Amtrak here?”

BRUSH: Exactly. So, I think we just have all of the right pieces to make this time, the real time that we get it going. And you won't be writing about this again in 15 years.

PRENTICE: I promise you I won't. Bre Brush, she is the mayor of Boise's transportation advisor, which is fascinating on any given day. But for now, we're going to say thank you for giving us some time this morning.

BRUSH: Absolutely. Thank you, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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