Christensen: Here’s how the proposed train link from Boise to Salt Lake and Vegas misses the mark

Photo of the California Zephyr leaving Salt Lake City by Isaac Madsen.

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Maps of the corridor proposal submissions.

In March of 2023, corridor proposal submissions were made to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development program as the first step in restoring passenger rail between Boise and Salt Lake City and between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.

Partners in the Boise-SLC application include the Idaho Transportation Department, UDOT, UTA, and the City of Boise, while partners in the Las Vegas-SLC application include UDOT, UTA, and the Nevada Department of Transportation.

It is hoped that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will announce which applications will be selected in the coming weeks.

Left to right: Jay Fox, Caroline Decker, Alex Khalfin, and Dominic Spaethling.

Last week, UTA hosted a panel discussion led by Jay Fox, UTA’s Executive Director, and featuring Caroline Decker, Senior Vice President & National Rail Business Director at consulting firm WSP; Alex Khalfin, Director of Government Affairs for Amtrak’s West Region; and Dominic Spaethling, Vice President at consulting firm HNTB.

The three panel members spoke in detail about the creation and evolution of Amtrak and the Corridor Identification and Development program that was established by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

As part of the $66 billion in federal funding made available for intercity passenger by the act, the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail makes $12 billion available to states and local governments through the FRA’s Corridor Identification and Development program.

Table from the FRA outlining the stages of the Corridor Identification and Development program.

The aforementioned Boise to Salt Lake City and Las Vegas to Salt Lake City corridor proposal submissions currently await selection to start the first of three development steps that lead to getting new passenger rail services running.

If advanced to Step 1, proposal sponsors will receive approximately $500,000 from the FRA as seed money with which to execute scoping and cost estimates in preparation for Step 2. No matching funds are required for Step 1. Steps 2 and 3 require a 10% match and a 20% match respectively. Matching funds can consist of a variety state and/or local sources and can also be financed through the federal government.

While the audience attending the panel discussion showed a great deal of enthusiasm for expanding passenger rail, there are still many hurdles to overcome in order to get trains running—including being selected by the FRA.

However, the greater obstacle to clear will likely be getting the support necessary from the state legislatures of Idaho, Utah, and Nevada.

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. An even greater ask of state and local governments will be funding the ongoing annual operations and maintenance costs for the services.

Those unfamiliar with how transportation is funded in the United States may balk at the funding need to support intercity passenger rail and public transit.

The reality is that driving and flying in America are not paid for entirely by “user fees” and both require hefty subsidies with a return on investment that is typically lower than the return for public transit funding. While the percentages vary slightly from state to state, the average state department of transportation derives less than half its budget from fees like fuel taxes and vehicle registrations—leaving the rest of the budget to be covered out of general funds.

The subsidies required for flying are even heavier. While a fee is levied on each ticket for airport security, it still does not offset the Transportation Security Administration’s $11 billion annual budget—most of which goes to providing security at airports. No fees are charged to offset the Federal Aviation Administration’s $15 billion annual budget.

As a sidenote, the national Rail Passengers Association—in conjunction with the Trent Lott National Center at the University of Southern Mississippi—has developed an economic benefits model to quantify the economic return to local communities when investments are made in intercity passenger rail. While the benefits vary by route, the model shows the benefits experienced by local communities range from three to nine times the amount paid on annual operations and maintenance!

One potential blind spot in both the Boise to Salt Lake City and the Las Vegas to Salt Lake City corridor proposal submissions is that the existing mainline freight corridors are missing out on serving some key population centers along the route.

The Utah Rail Passengers Association has identified three potential opportunities for future improvements that would greatly increase the population directly served by the routes.

Having a plan for serving these communities directly in the future may also be needed in order to gain adequate political support for expanding passenger rail in the region.

Improvements suggested by the Utah Rail Passengers Association for improving the route of the Las Vegas-SLC proposal.

The current plan for restoring Amtrak service between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City utilizes Union Pacific’s mainline through the town of Caliente and bypasses the population centers of Mesquite, St. George, and Hurricane—which lack a rail line—and Cedar City—which lines at the end of a branch line.

While the cost of building a new rail line connecting these communities was estimated to be at least $5 billion by engineering and construction students at Southern Utah University, such a line would allow trains to directly serve more than 200,000 additional residents.

Additionally, the new line could also be built to support commuter trains that would run between Mesquite and Cedar City.

Improvements suggested by the Utah Rail Passengers Association for improving the route of the Boise-SLC proposal.

The current plan for restoring Amtrak service between Salt Lake City and Boise utilizes Union Pacific’s mainline to the west of Cache Valley and bypasses the population centers of Logan and Preston—which lie along a branch line.

While no cost estimates have been made for improvements better linking Cache Valley—which would likely include a tunnel between Brigham City and Wellsville—making such improvements would allow trains to directly serve more than 100,000 additional residents. Additionally, the improvements could be built to support commuter trains that would connect Cache Valley to the Wasatch Front.

Improvements suggested by the Utah Rail Passengers Association for improving the route of the Boise-SLC proposal.

The current plan for restoring Amtrak service between Salt Lake City and Boise utilizes Union Pacific’s mainline through the town of Shoshone and bypasses the population centers of Rupert, Burley, Twin Falls, and Jerome—which lie on various branch lines throughout Magic Valley.

While no cost estimates have been made for improvements better linking Magic Valley, making such improvements would allow trains to directly serve more than 100,000 additional residents.

Additionally, the Utah Rail Passengers Association has been participating in the FRA’s Amtrak Long-Distance Service Study, which is examining the restoration of former long-distance train service and the addition of new long-distance train service.

One recommendation that may come from this study is a new Amtrak long-distance route that would travel between Los Angeles and Seattle by way of Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Boise, and Portland. Planning for the aforementioned improvements would also increase the number of residents served by future long-distance trains.

One additional sidenote to address is UDOT’s lack of understanding of passenger rail as reported by Benjamin Wood’s post regarding a disparaging comment made by UDOT executive director Carlos Braceras following the UTA event. During the question and answer session following the panel discussion, local transit and intercity passenger rail photographer Isaac Madsen mentioned his recent YouTube video titled “Taking Amtrak to Green River, Utah and back for no reason.”

Apparently, hearing about someone riding Amtrak purely for fun prompted Carlos Braceras to state that Isaac “Must not have much going on in his life.” His comment begs the question of whether we need to kidnap Carlos and take him for a ride on Amtrak’s California Zephyr in order for UDOT to gain institutional knowledge on intercity passenger rail?

Mike Christensen, MCMP, CNU-A, AICP, serves as Executive Director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association and currently serves as Chair of Salt Lake City’s Planning Commission.

The Utah Rail Passengers Association has launched a GoFundMe campaign to take Mr. Braceras on Amtrak’s California Zephyr as well as give him an opportunity to experience Denver Union Station and hear about how CDOT is executing a plan for statewide public transit.

Slides from the panel discussion are provided courtesy of UTA.

The Boise-SLC corridor proposal submission is provided courtesy of the City of Boise.

The Las Vegas-SLC corridor proposal submission is provided courtesy of UTA.

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Posted by Mike Christensen

Mike Christensen recently graduated from the University of Utah with a Master of City and Metropolitan Planning, is employed as the Executive Director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association, and serves on the Board of Directors of the national Rail Passengers Association.