An island of history. That is how Sandpoint resident Aric Spence describes the Sandpoint Train Depot. But that island may soon be deserted.
The train station stands between new lakefront condominiums and construction of the city’s new bypass. The building still has the original white tile floor from 1916. But leaking roofs and sagging ceilings have left the future of the historic structure in jeopardy.
The Sandpoint Depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, is the oldest active passenger depot of what was the Northern Pacific Railway, the first northern transcontinental railway. BNSF, formerly known as Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, now owns the depot, the only Amtrak stop in Idaho.
When acoustic tile started falling to the floor in June, the depot was closed for safety reasons. Service by Amtrak continues, but only from the outside platform.
Spence, a member of Sandpoint’s Historic Preservation Commission and who chairs the subcommittee for the historic depot, has been in talks with BNSF and Amtrak on the future of the building and the Amtrak stop in Sandpoint. Amtrak says it will continue to stop at its current location, but that could change.
Even so, the depot may not remain. Spence and other residents fear that what has happened in other cities could also come to pass in Sandpoint. In Connecticut, a depot built in 1875 was in such disrepair it was replaced with what resembled an outdoor bus stop shelter.
Spence and other members of the Historic Preservation Commission are pushing for restoration of the Gothic-style Sandpoint depot, as well as its purchase by the city.
“It is a one-of-a-kind depot that was the foundation for Sandpoint’s growth,” Spence said.
He argues the city would see an economic benefit from thousands of additional visitors to downtown. That alone, he said, would go a long way to revitalizing the downtown core.
According to Spence, there has been a steady increase in Amtrak ridership for Sandpoint. It hit 6,181 passengers in 2008, up from 4,932 in 2004.
The depot will receive even more exposure and use when the bypass is completed, he said. With a future bike path passing by, the depot eventually could house a coffee shop, Spence said. And with nontrain riders using the station for other services, it will provide a great opportunity for those people to learn more about the benefits of rail transportation, he argues.
The Sandpoint City Council recently expressed its support in doing what they can to restore the depot but stopped short of expressing interest in buying it. City Council member, Carrie Logan, said the council passed a resolution at a recent meeting which strongly outlines interest in retaining the station as operational and opens the door for discussions with Amtrak and BNSF for restoration of the depot. But Logan also said that due to the current state of the economy the City Council is not prepared to accept the full financial burden of restoration.
“I don’t believe the council is interested in a one-sided project that involves taking on financial responsibility for the depot,” said Logan.
“But if we could develop a partnership with several entities and could locate funding that would not involve city tax dollars, I think we could garner council and more importantly community support for a rehabilitated train station.”
Although Amtrak has decided for now to maintain service to Sandpoint, Logan’s opinion is that it’s just a stopgap measure.
“We need to actively work on a plan for the longterm sustainability of the station,” she said.
“City Council did unanimously vote for the resolution to support keeping the Amtrak stop in Sandpoint, but they removed the wording talking about acquisition,” Spence said. “In my mind the acquisition of the depot is required for Amtrak to continue to use it. “
Spence added that the cost to repair and restore the station is unknown at this point, but to initially make it safe for use again would require at the very least a new roof or roof repair.
But Spence said he hopes that funding will also come from Amtrak.
“It is also important to note that Amtrak received substantial money from (the Idaho Transportation Department) during the byway negotiations and has recently said that if they continue to stop at the Sandpoint Depot that they would use those funds to assist with restoration of the station,” Spence said. “Amtrak has in the past partnered with municipalities around the country to help them with station revitalization, and the Sandpoint Depot is a perfect opportunity for this partnership.”
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