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Passenger trains at the Boise Depot? City council hopes to resurrect Amtrak line

A proposed Boise City Council resolution supports restoring the route between Salt Lake City and Portland, including a stop at the long-dormant Boise Depot.

BOISE, Idaho — Editor's Note: This article was originally published by the Idaho Press.

The Boise City Council wants to resurrect a passenger railroad route that once connected Boise to Salt Lake City, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle.

Amtrak’s Pioneer line, discontinued in 1997, carried passengers from Salt Lake City through southern Idaho, with stops in Pocatello, Boise, Nampa and other Idaho cities, to Portland, which currently has passenger rail service to Seattle. A proposed Boise City Council resolution — co-authored by all six council members — supports restoring the route between Salt Lake City and Portland, including a stop at the long-dormant Boise Depot, which the city has owned since 1996.

“I’m quite excited,” said Council President Elaine Clegg. “There’s a bit of momentum, finally, to begin working on the Pioneer route again and see if we can’t get it restored.”

The resolution comes after Amtrak, the quasi-public passenger railroad service, this year chose not to include southern Idaho — as well as large swaths of Northwest states — in a proposal for new routes to up to 160 American cities, funded by President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.

In the resolution, Boise council members argue, “for many years, Americans living in the Greater Northwest have not had good access to passenger rail services.” The lack of service, and the economic benefits it can provide, has fueled interest among local, county and state officials to work together to advocate for restored routes, the resolution says.

“… passenger rail has multiple service capabilities that airlines cannot match, a single rail line can simultaneously serve local, regional, and long-distance travel needs safely transporting some passengers long distances while carrying local passengers to work, medical providers, or social events,” it said.

Over the last year, Clegg said she’s spoken with interested parties in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin to collaborate on rail proposals. In Montana, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority hopes to resurrect the North Coast Hiawatha line, which connected Fargo, North Dakota, to Butte, Montana, until it was discontinued in 1979.

Locally, officials in Caldwell, Nampa, Meridian, Pocatello and Idaho Falls have expressed interest, Clegg said, as have cities in eastern Oregon.

MORE: Since 1925, the Boise Depot has stood above the City of Trees

Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Connors told KTVB that resurrecting the Amtrak line is something the chamber has been working on for more than 12 years.

“We're the fastest-growing city in the country and to me, that's argument for this project,” Connors said. 

These aren’t the first efforts to restore the Pioneer and Hiawatha lines. In 2008, Congress authorized a study of Northwest routes — with support from Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo. The studies recommended restoring the Pioneer and North Coast Hiawatha, but funding never materialized.

Sen. Mike Crapo sent KTVB the following statement: 

"More than a decade ago, Amtrak agreed to conduct a review of the Pioneer route at my request. the study projected the ridership at a level nearly 30 percent below the historic high in 1992 while the population growth in the states along the route increased by 41 percent. Even taking into account increased direct flights between major cities along the route, this projection seemed highly pessimistic. Amtrak should review and update the ridership projections and follow through on promises it made to meet directly with Idahoans on the issue." 

Now, the Boise City Council is asking Congress to authorize working groups to study the routes. It’s also requesting that 25% of funding authorized for rail service improvements be set aside for rural, long-distance routes.

As for the cost of restoring the Pioneer line, a previous study, likely outdated today, estimated about $400 million, Clegg said. While the track exists, it’s currently used for freight trains, and passenger tracks have higher safety standards.

“We don’t know for sure,” Clegg said of the potential cost. “However, for the most part, the Pioneer track is in pretty good shape.”

The Boise City Council likely will approve the resolution at Tuesday’s council meeting.

“So the rail here already exists and the plan would be to use the existing rail by working with the freight railroads to schedule around them and do infrastructure improvements and what have you to make it work,” Clegg told KTVB.

Ryan Suppe is the Boise City Hall and Treasure Valley business reporter for the Idaho Press. Contact him at 208-344-2055 (ext. 3038). Follow him on Twitter @salsuppe.

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