ID: Why Boise may have missed out on potentially millions for return of Amtrak rail

Dec. 12, 2023
Though federal leaders didn’t say why Boise was left out, some of the projects that were funded already had millions of local dollars set aside and appeared to be in more advanced planning stages. Idaho, by contrast, had promised no money for the venture.

President Joe Biden’s administration doled out millions to study how to expand passenger train corridors across the U.S. on Friday.

The administration funded three-quarters of the projects that applied for grants through the federal infrastructure law, promising up to $500,000 in grant funding to prepare for the trains and a pipeline to secure millions more in investments in the coming years for the accepted proposals.

Idaho’s wasn’t one of them.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced $34.5 million to study dozens of projects that are less than 750 miles long, but excluded the application brought by a coalition of Boise and Idaho officials in tandem with Utah’s transportation authorities.

Though federal leaders didn’t say why Boise was left out, some of the projects that were funded already had millions of local dollars set aside and appeared to be in more advanced planning stages. Idaho, by contrast, had promised no money for the venture.

Chosen applicants had ‘evidence’ moving projects forward

The Federal Railroad Administration will fund 69 projects out of the 91 applications it deemed eligible, William Wong, a spokesperson for the agency, told the Idaho Statesman by email.

“The successful applications were for the corridors that FRA viewed as most prepared for advancement in their planning work,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told members of the media last week.

Wong said projects were selected based on their merit and “demonstrated evidence by applicants to move their corridor forward in the development process.”

While the federal program Idaho and Utah applied to did not require guaranteed local funding to start, several projects accepted Friday displayed significant local support and organization.

One application in Colorado that would connect the cities of Fort Collins with Pueblo — with stops in Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs along the way — has had a taxing district and its own government agency since 2021, which provides a mechanism to raise money to operate the planned rail line by collecting sales tax. The board that governs Colorado’s transportation department secured $4 million later that year to study the project’s viability, which is overall expected to cost at least $1.7 billion, according to the Denver Post.

For a line connecting cities in Oregon with Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, the Washington Legislature allocated $4 million last year to analyze the potential for high-speed rail and $150 million “to be used as matching funds to leverage federal funding opportunities over the next six years,” according to the state transportation agency.

Another project to reanimate a line from New York to Scranton has been backed up with millions in promised funds from state leaders. Agencies in the region began working on a feasibility study for the project in 2017, and a local U.S. representative secured $3.7 million from the governor last year to upgrade the railroad tracks, according to a news release. In January, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro agreed to provide $125 million for the project, according to the release.

Idaho had ‘no dedicated, non-federal funding’

Successful applicants received the initial $500,000 to study their proposed train lines, which did not require states to have secured “match” funding. But states will need to front some of the bill as the projects get closer to fruition: During the planning phase, federal authorities will cover up to 90% of costs, and during the implementation phase they will cover up to 80%, according to an explanation of the grant. Once the trains are running, local leaders will eventually be responsible for paying for operating costs.

Idaho’s joint application, which was authored by the Idaho Transportation Department, points out “no dedicated, non-federal funding committed” to the Pioneer Corridor Restoration Project. Amtrak’s old Pioneer Line went through Boise and Salt Lake City, and would be partially restored by the corridor. The line was pulled from service in 1997 because of federal budget cuts.

ITD officials do not believe the lack of secured funding “contributed” to the FRA’s decision to snub the state’s proposal, spokesperson John Tomlinson told the Statesman by email.

“There was no reason to ask the state for any funding for this application because the grant was specific to the planning stage,” Tomlinson said. ITD expects to receive an official decision letter soon “with instructions on requesting a debrief,” he said.

Amtrak, which supported the Boise-to- Salt Lake City proposal, renewed its enthusiasm Monday for restoring passenger service to the Boise area, spokesperson Marc Magliari told the Statesman. Federal officials are separately studying whether to bring back the Pioneer Line, which ran from Seattle to Chicago.

“FRA briefs unsuccessful applicants to its programs and we look forward to learning why some applications were not funded in this round,” Magliari said.

Gov. Brad Little’s office did not respond to a Statesman request for comment.

Fund ‘a challenge’ for local governments in Idaho

Matt Stoll, executive director of the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, the region’s transportation planning agency, told the Statesman that Boise is more remote than many other medium-sized cities, and that other parts of the country also have higher population densities. But he added that securing match funding for infrastructure projects has been a challenge in Idaho for decades.

“We’re behind the eight ball on that one,” he said, noting that the same problem arose when leaders were looking to secure federal money for rail projects in the 2000s. The state ultimately missed out on funds because state leaders hadn’t provided a “guaranteed ability” to match the federal investment, Stoll told the Statesman.

“That’s always been a challenge for local governments to do in the state of Idaho,” Stoll said.

Local public transportation faces a similar challenge, where agencies like Valley Regional Transit have no authority from the Legislature to raise their own funds. Instead, the Treasure Valley bus operator must rely on distributions from local cities.

In an opinion article last month, Mike Christensen, executive director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association, wrote that one of the biggest challenges of connecting Boise with Salt Lake City would be “getting the support necessary from the state legislatures of Idaho, Utah, and Nevada.” Utah separately applied for federal funds for a rail line between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, which also wasn’t funded.

“While the federal government is funding 80% of the capital costs needed to establish new services, the 20% match will still need to be met,” he wrote. “An even greater ask of state and local governments will be funding the ongoing annual operations and maintenance costs for the services.”

Rejected applicants will have another chance to apply for funding and receive feedback about how to strengthen their applications, Wong said.

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean said in an emailed statement that despite the setback, the city’s commitment to bringing back passenger rail “remains strong.”

“We know our residents are excited about it. We’re excited about it,” McLean said. “And we’ll continue working with partners throughout the region and at the federal level to get it done.”

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