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Last Train To Boise

Our mayors have been saying for years that the time is right for rail transit in Boise. But is the historic "Boise cutoff" any closer to getting stitched back on?

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"Hopefully the UP will take us today," says Jeff Anderson, resting his hand on the throttle of an idling Rio Grande freight locomotive. It's just after 7 a.m., and we're paused at the intersection where a small stretch of track run by the Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad meets the multiple lane Union Pacific mainline railroad in downtown Nampa. Behind the engine in which we're seated, 12 freight cars loaded with lumber sit idle while Anderson, the train's engineer, waits to get permission to share the mainline track with far longer and more powerful trains.

We don't have to wait long until he blows the locomotive's whistle, the airbrakes hiss and the train rumbles forward. On other days, Anderson says, the Idaho Northern's decades-old, 2,250 horsepower trains are often blocked for minutes or even hours by UP's much larger customers.

"Out here, we're just 'Those guys," he says. And as for the train's supposed power, "How many of those horses are still in there, I don't know."

Surrounded by other quietly rumbling locomotives preparing to depart, we ride slowly southeast on the mainline for just over a mile before switching onto a single track curving sharply to the north. This line, known as the "Boise cutoff," runs some 44 miles from Nampa through Meridian and Boise before reconnecting with the UP mainline southeast of Boise at the ruined townsite of Orchard. The cutoff was once viewed as such a civic triumph, thousands of revelers packed the Boise Depot to celebrate its completion. At the time, they even called it the "Boise Mainline." Today, this locomotive is the only train that still makes the approximately 20-mile trip into Boise. It passes through Canyon County with so little fanfare, Anderson says he recognizes some of the individual crows along the route by sight.

The train rolls under the 16th Street overpass, which leads commuters into downtown Nampa, and across an elevated bridge line over much busier Garrity Boulevard, where cars wait in line to enter Interstate 84 en route to Boise. We pass Lakeview Park, where an old steam engine sits surrounded by a flimsy wire fence, and look down on a pristine American Legion baseball field, the large pink and orange archways of the Hispanic Cultural Center and then chug under the interstate itself before making our first stop at a Boise Paper packaging plant in Nampa's industrial district.

Here, Anderson's two fellow crew members, conductor Mark Matranga and brakeman Jeff Short, jump out of the engine and begin flipping railroad switches and unhitching and re-hitching cars while Anderson drives the engine forward and backward, slowly shuffling full cars out of the middle of the train and picking up empties like milkmen. They'll repeat the routine tomorrow and every weekday, delivering more lumber, a few loads of asphalt and an occasional tanker full of chemicals to the same handful of customers located along the rail corridor.

Between Nampa and the Ada County border, we slip past construction crews working to square off lots and laying sewer pipe for future subdivisions that will bump almost up to the track--a far cry from the dirty industrial expanses that border the cutoff almost everywhere but on the Boise Bench. Throughout Meridian and Boise, dozens of tiny, abandoned spurs branch off the track and end within a few yards. Most are remnants of the long-pulled-up rail lines that once connected outlying communities to Boise, but today, the only traffic they receive is to store the cars that the Idaho Northern delivers to its customers. Since it's the only railroad still using the Boise cutoff, there's no danger of them getting in anyone's else's way.

Our ride to Boise is slow and rhythmic inside the Idaho Northern locomotive, taking about an hour (not counting the stops) in cab conditions that Matranga describes as "Spartan." Translation: If you want water or lunch, bring a cooler, which might have to double as a seat. If you have to pee, there are plenty of weeds to water. But once I get past the early hours and sparse surroundings, the ride proves an eye-opener for one realization: Despite the shrieking clatter of airbrakes, train horns, clanking cars and old steel wheels on old tracks, people in the Treasure Valley just don't actually seem to notice the train anymore.

As we make our way toward busier train crossings in Boise, we see numerous drivers risk a $150 ticket by speeding across crossings in front of the train--most without even stopping at the crossing in the first place. The crew sees this so often, they can't help but catcall and occasionally laugh at the impatient motorists. Short, who moonlights as a policeman in Emmett, even tells me that last year in Caldwell, a motorist was so oblivious to an Idaho Northern train, he actually ran into it at a crossing.

Even less of a laughing matter, though, is the once a year or so that Matranga says the train gets derailed on the Boise cutoff. This is usually due to vandals who ignorantly flip the levers on unlocked switch stands, misaligning the rails--whether they realize that's what they're doing or not.

"We really aren't moving fast enough for anything disastrous to happen," he says. "It's just a lot of paperwork, and we have to get the police involved."

When we finally pass through the historic Boise Depot, our receiving line is made up of a woman walking her dog and a young man apparently having his senior portrait taken. The woman walks along a thick white line that was painted on the brick platform to notify passengers how close they could safely stand to the train. The young man stands well within the line as the locomotive whirrs past, eager to have the colorful tan and green engine in his picture.

"You want to risk your life for that snapshot?" says Anderson quietly, shaking his head.

It's appropriate that the only interaction between the train and a pedestrian on this particular morning is to provide a quaint backdrop in a photograph. For while the Boise cutoff was constructed with passenger trains in mind, it hasn't carried a paying customer since Amtrak ceased services in 1997. And as for the depot, which former Boise Mayor Brent Coles told a U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the city had purchased "to preserve the infrastructure that will be needed someday for commuter and passenger rail service in our region," it gets more press for its wedding catering rules and its irregular visiting hours than for its potential to serve as a transit hub.

Nevertheless, Boise's curren mayor Dave Bieter has been as steadfast as his predecessor in prophesying that trains--commuter trains, specifically, pulling carloads of commuters from Canyon County and Meridian--will come back to Boise, and soon. "Maybe not in the next 18 months, but certainly within the next 5 to 10 years," he declared in his state of the city address last September. In a recent interview with BW, (Citizen Boise, Aug. 23), Bieter added that "A lot of people recognize that now is the time," to revive rail transit, which he called "Just a better way to go." But aside from the best wishes of our mayors, is the Treasure Valley any nearer to the rail renaissance they have so enthusastically foretold than we were when Amtrak rolled away? And more importantly, do commuters in Boise, Meridian and Canyon County even want trains?

A Rail To Nowhere

"There is an energy to this issue. The time is right. We need to move this nation past the highway and a limited view of transit. This is about making rail a critical part of our strategy and it is about building stronger communities."

When Boise Mayor Brent Coles delivered this pitch for commuter train service in a keynote address to the more than 300 mayors and federal officials at the United States Conference of Mayors Winter Conference in 2001, his passion for rail transit was already a source of both enthusiasm and debate in Boise. Pushing both light rail (such as trolleys or streetcars) and commuter rail (passenger trains running on railroads) had been one of his administration's fundamental themes for years. This culminated in 1997, when the City of Boise, Ada County and the Idaho Department of Transportation all contributed substantial funds to sponsor a demonstration by a German-manufactured Siemens RegioSprinter commuter train. Over 18,000 Treasure Valley residents took a free ride from the Boise Depot to the Idaho Center during the 10 days that the train ran.

In the ensuing years, the "energy" that Coles told the other mayors about has caught on around the west. Most recently, both Salt Lake City and Portland are expecting to launch commuter train lines in early 2008, following over a decade of planning and the implementation of several hotly contested local taxes.

However, these metropolitan areas differ from Boise in that they've had well-established and profitable light rail systems for years--the MAX line in Portland and the TRAX in Salt Lake City. According to Kelli Fairless, executive director of Valley Regional Transit, Ada and Canyon counties' transit authority, one reason that commuter trains in particular have held such an appeal for Treaure Valley residents and politicians is that our suburban layout and preexisting rail line could hypothetically enable us to skip over the light rail step altogether--at least at first. Albuquerque, New Mexico, took such a leap last month, launching its "Rail Runner" line to the outlying suburbs of Belen and Bernallilo two years before the city's light rail system is scheduled to open.

"Typically, the evolution is that you have carpooling, then vanpooling, then some kind of commuter express bus service, and then when you get enough of those, you move to light rail," Fairless says. "I think the commuter rail option is more feasible in a shorter term here, where you would have a stop in Caldwell, a stop in Nampa, two in Meridian and three in Boise. People could drive to the stops. It would start out as large park-and-ride lots, and over time you would grow into light rail, where you have much more frequent stops. Some people would argue that we are pretty close to being able to do that."

The transit authority that Fairless heads up was approved by Ada and Canyon County voters in 1998, and at the time, many said that the vote was at least partially influenced by the residual mystique of the RegioSprinter. However, says Matt Stoll, executive director of the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS), the creation of our transit authority predated a question crucial to its survival. Namely, who's in charge of feeding it?

"I think when voters approved [the creation of a transit authority], many of them thought that there was a dedicated local funding stream going with it," says Stoll. "There isn't."

In Idaho, unlike Utah and Oregon, local governmental agencies are only allowed to pitch tax increases to voters in two cases: to help fund jails or build resort communities. As such, Valley Regional Transit has made due thus far with a budget made half of federal startup dollars and half matching contributions from cities--98 percent of which comes from Boise. According to Fairless and Stoll, Valley Regional Transit's inability to propose tax increases--most likely, sales taxes--has effectively stymied any ambition the agency has had to expand into other transportation services.

"We've gotten ourselves significantly challenged on the federal dollar, and we're just starting to do talk about what we can do on the state and local side," Stoll says. "But we still have more population growth to deal with."

Where does this put the prospect of commuter trains? In 2003, Valley Regional Transit, COMPASS, the Idaho Department of Transportation and city and county governments from across the Treasure Valley sought to answer that in a preliminary Rail Corridor Evaluation Study. The report's estimate was that the startup costs alone of a commuter train system from Nampa to Boise would run between $108 and $127 million, with between $12 and $14 million earmarked for purchasing the track from Union Pacific. The totals didn't take even into account the possibility of extending of service to Caldwell, which could potentially require the construction of a whole new rail running parallel to the UP mainline.

"Quite frankly, if you're waiting for the federal government to provide those kind of financial resources, no matter what state you're in, you're going to be waiting for a very, very long time," Stoll says.

Adds Fairless, "We're already in line behind many, many other much larger regions that are positioned much better to get those kinds of dollars."

Which is not to say that the funds are bountiful to begin with, according to Larry Falkner, administrator of the ITD's division of public transportation. "There's an 18-cent fuel tax that we all pay, and that goes back to the national highway distribution account," Falkner explains. "When we go through the various reauthorizations, those are the monies that Congress appropriates to us for highway and transit infrastructure. Eighty percent goes to highways. Twenty goes to transit. If it was 50-50, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

To help the transit authority's odds, a broad coalition of local government and business leaders under the title of the Coalition for Regional Transportation have been meeting throughout this year to draft legislation that would allow Valley Regional to put a 20-year, half-cent sales tax raise before Canyon and Ada county voters as soon as November 2008.

"The business community recognizes that we have to go multi-modal. In other words, it's not just a matter of all commuter trains or only expanding the freeways by another lane every year or whatever," explains Nancy Vannorsdel, CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, which has joined the Coalition. "What we need to do is to help the Legislature understand the critical need for not only enhancing transportation today, but looking at where we need to be in the next 5, 10, 20, even 30 years. Good city planning has to be that far in advance."

Much more immediate of a threat, however, is an October 1, 2007 deadline where Valley Regional Transit will no longer be allowed to use federal funds to maintain and operate its fleet of buses. The funds would still be available for capital expenditures such as expanding transit services or pursuing new transit options, but Fairless says without a funding source for maintenance, Valley Regional Transit is already projecting a $1.5 million budget shortfall for 2008. She says that Boise City will have no choice but to make it up in order to maintain what she admits is already "about as substandard a service as you can have for a region of this size."

Without a regional funding source to maintain Boise's already diminished fleet, Fairless says, "Basically, we would have to reinvent transit for this region. As sad as that might be, Boise's service might have to become a lifeline service, more like something you'd see in a rural area."

As for how that portends for the transit authority's and the mayor's rail ambitions, Fairless says, "The foundation of any high-density system is a robust, viable bus system. If you're taking that much longer to rebuild that, it's just that much longer before the other stuff can come into play. Building a commuter rail or a light rail system without good circulation on either end of those trips is like building a road to nowhere."

However, this funding dilemma hasn't kept Valley Regional and COMPASS from continuing to eyeball the rail corridor currently inhabited by Anderson and his skeleton crew. This October, Stoll says, the agencies will cooperatively undertake the follow-up to the 2003 rail corridor study, tentatively titled The Treasure valley High Capacity Transit Study. Unlike the more formative first report, this version will focus on what steps would be necessary to actually implement a rail transit system, should a funding source be identified.

But while the mayors of the valley's cities, the chambers of commerce, transit authority, planning associations and businesses by the score support a local tax option for that funding source, they can't push it through. They can only make its case to the state legislature, who can in turn only authorize the Coalition to try to sell that plan to the people who would actually be filling any buses or trains. Then, finally--and, considering the dire situation of Valley Regional Transit, conclusively--Treasure Valley residents will be able to answer the question of whether they think mass transit in Boise is a visionary plan or a politician's pipe dream.

"We won't know until we give the citizens the opportunities to decide that for themselves," Stoll says. "Then we can get into the clichés--'If you build it, will they come?' and that sort of thing."

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