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Discussion on bringing passenger train service back to Boise hitting high gear

An Amtrak train arrives at a station stop in Burbank, California.
An Amtrak train arrives at a station stop in Burbank, California.

The effort to bring passenger rail service back through Boise hit high gear after the federal government allocated millions of dollars to study where in the US expanding or reviving Amtrak service.

Boise is one of dozens of cities and regions vying for that money in the Corridor Identification Program, which will be awarded this fall by the U.S. Department of Transportation. If Boise is selected, that’s when the real work begins, said Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner.

“How long is it going to take to build it? How long will the trip time be? How much money is necessary to achieve the outcome?”

The rail line between Boise and Salt Lake City is heavily used by freight, but would need major upgrades to handle higher-speed passenger service, and longer side-offs where freight can pull off so passenger trains can speed by. Amtrak and freight carriers like BNSF would also have to work out a shared use schedule.

The conversation about reviving rail service here has been going for years, with bipartisan support from Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and many other local leaders.

Gardner, Amtrak's CEO since 2021, delivered the breakfast keynote Thursday morning in Boise at the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Summit. He said he was impressed by the support, enthusiasm and vision of leaders here, all important groundwork for a successful pitch.

“That is,” he said, “mostly going to be driven by, ‘do communities have the dollars and commitment ready, the host railroads engaged? Are there opportunities and concepts around equipment?’ All of these key elements are going to determine, I think, what moves forward.”

The Biden Administration’s infrastructure bill carved out $66 billion to expand, upgrade and revive passenger rail across the U.S. Currently underserved areas like the fast-growing Mountain West, northern Rocky Mountain region and the northwest seem likely candidates for investment.

“There's so much opportunity that makes this worth it,” Gardner told the keynote crowd. “And we really appreciate all the effort and time that this community has put into getting us this far. And I feel really positive about where we're headed.”

For local leaders, the rail line between Boise and Salt Lake City is the first priority. McLean was happy to have made the impression she hoped for this week.

“That Boiseans are excited about the chance to get up to the depot, jump on a train and go see family, that there is great partnership at all levels of government in our state, and a commitment to connect our families by rail, and we’re ready and willing to work with Amtrak and the Department of Transportation to make this happen,” she said in an interview with attending media.

Passenger train service on the Pioneer line between Portland, Boise and Salt Lake City ended in 1997. The route was not on Amtrak’s 15-year expansion plan released in 2021, but funding from the infrastructure and jobs act passed last year opened the door to many areas the train operator didn’t include in its plan.

Amtrak Spokesman Marc Magliari said Boise stepping up after service ended to keep the local rail line through Meridian and Boise in place, is likely a key factor in the city’s chase to get service again. “I don’t think we’re here if that decision wasn’t made,” he said.

This story has been updated to correct a misspelled name.

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

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