Caldwell Mayor Jarom Wagoner wants people from Portland and Seattle to spend the weekend—and their money—in Caldwell.
It would be one of the many benefits of restoring the passenger train service from those areas to the Treasure Valley, Wagoner said at the Boise Metro Chamber’s legislative forum luncheon on Jan 12 which focused on the future of rail locally. The event took place at the Boise Centre.
“’Come and spend a weekend in Caldwell, the Treasure Valley; come and see our Christmas lights,’” Wagoner said, imagining an advertisement to West Coast cities for a quick getaway.
“Stay in a hotel downtown, spend all the money you can, then we’re going to send you back to Oregon,” Wagoner said, and was met with laughter from the audience.
The event brought state legislators and business leaders together with the panelists to discuss restoring rail service and opportunities for doing so made possible by the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year.
Gov. Brad Little remembers his mother putting him on the train when he was 10 years old to visit his sister and nephew in Shoshone.
“Having that train was a big part of what the Treasure Valley is. … It would be wonderful if we had that back,” Little said, though he added that beefing up transportation connectivity in general should continue to be a priority.
Jay Fox, the executive director of the Utah Transit Authority, said he sometimes gets in “spirited discussions” with lawmakers who do not necessarily oppose transit, but say that they “represent people who don’t take transit.”
But even people who do not use rail still benefit from it in the form of better air quality and less congestion, Fox said. And when fewer car trips happen, “you’ve reduced your cost to maintain those roads or even expand those roads,” Fox said.
People may also be hesitant about rail from the perspective that Amtrak as a government-owned corporation “rose out of entities that went bankrupt,” Fox said.
But now Amtrak and rail service is a public entity, and providing rail service is the same as providing any other kind of public service, Fox said.
“The question for you, or maybe the challenge for you, is to leave behind this concept of entities that went bankrupt, because it isn’t a business where you’re going to fall in the black on operations at the end of the day, but you’re going to be seriously in the black in terms of what the return is to your community, what the return is to your business communities,” Fox said.
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Fox cited a study from the University of Utah that found that the economic return on a two-mile commuter rail line over a decade was a whopping $2 billion.
Rail can be expensive to build out, but even if it cost $100 million to build a mile of track, that would still be a 1000% return, he said. With funding available through the infrastructure law, that return is potentially even higher, he said.
Wagoner said that two of the questions Caldwell’s economic development director gets most often from businesses looking to locate in the city are, “‘Where is the rail? And how do I get to it?’”
Having a rail line through the city has long been a boon to the local agricultural sector, including vegetable seed producers, Wagoner said. The vegetable seeds grown in Canyon County are used to grow food crops around the world, and having rail is one of the first steps on a seed’s journey to where it will be grown.
The city has also expanded its industrial footprint, and those businesses are also eager to have rail access, Wagoner said.
It is something his city intends to keep in mind “so we can get those corporations, those companies, looking at Idaho, looking at the Treasure Valley, expanding their business, bringing many, many jobs … bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of investment to our community,” he said.
The next steps to move forward on restoring rail is for entities to apply for the federal government’s Federal Rail Administration’s (FRA) Corridor Identification and Development program, said Chase Kitchen, the state and local government affairs manager for Amtrak in the northwest. That program recognizes that a rail corridor is worthy of federal investment dollars, he said.
From there, communities will receive $500,000 to make a plan for what it would cost to create a service plan for that corridor, to be followed by developing that plan, Kitchen said. Such plans include details such as where stops will be and what level of infrastructure and investment will be needed, he said.
Applications to the rail administration are due March 20, Kitchen said. From there, when rail is actually up and running depends on the will and coordination of the communities that are part of the corridor, as well as with lawmakers and the state.
It may also depend partly on local funding, Kitchen said. An investment match of 10% will be required for completing the service development plan, and a 20% match is required for infrastructure investments, he said. Presumably, the line will also need some trains to run on it, and buying them new or acquiring used ones can be a multi-year process, he said. And since it has been some years since trains ran on the line, infrastructure improvements may be needed in places, which could take a few years to complete, he said.
When all is said and done, getting rail up and running again could take five to 10 years, Kitchen said.