The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has approved spending $450,000 to fix part of the Taft Tunnel Trail.
The money isn’t enough, however, to fix the 1.7-mile-long tunnel on an abandoned railway that gives the trail its name.
“When completed, this trail will provide a welcome boost to the economies of several North Idaho communities,” said Republican Sen. Larry Craig. “The trail will take hikers and cyclists through some spectacular scenery and will likely draw people from around the country and even the world,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to allow the old rail line to fall into ruin.”
The money would pay for cable railings on several of the steel trestles, which remain structurally sound.
“I wouldn’t want to put a full train on there, but they’re fine for light bicycle traffic,” said Brad Burmark, deputy district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service’s St. Joe Ranger District.
The project also includes trail grading, toilets, parking lots and interpretive signs, said Burmark.
The funding is included in the Interior Appropriations Bill, which will now go to the full Senate for a vote.
If the bill passes, work on the trail could begin late this fall or early next spring.
“It’s a high priority for us,” said Burmark.
The funding includes money to repair several short tunnels along the trail and bypass another small one, he said. But it won’t pay for repairs to reopen the St. Paul Tunnel, also known as Taft Tunnel. It is widely considered the hallmark of the trail. It has been sealed off due to loose concrete inside.
The 20-mile trail runs from Lookout Pass to the North Fork of the St. Joe River, spanning the Idaho-Montana border. Other stretches could be added to extend the trail to a total of 46 miles.
A Forest Service report last year said it would cost $1.4 million to make the trail and tunnel safe. Trail proponents scoffed, calling it a “gold-plated” plan.
Still, Shoshone County Commissioner Sherry Krulitz said she was pleased at least some funding has come through. Trail users will generate important business for the county, she said, especially around Calder and Avery.
“It’s great news,” she said Wednesday night. “We’ve worked for it, I know. Now I just hope they open up the tunnel.”