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Tuesday, October 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Compass explores options for regional mass transit

A Utah Transit Authority train pulls up to a station. The Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho is looking at the rail system in the Salt Lake City area as an example of what might work in the Treasure Valley. (Utah Transit Authority / Courtesy)
A Utah Transit Authority train pulls up to a station. The Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho is looking at the rail system in the Salt Lake City area as an example of what might work in the Treasure Valley. (Utah Transit Authority / Courtesy)
By Xavier Ward Idaho Press-Tribune

As the Treasure Valley continues to expand, the services that allow people to work and live here will have to keep up.

With this growth, however, does the Treasure Valley have a need for a high-capacity regional passenger train?

That’s exactly what the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, or Compass, wants to know. Compass is the regional planning agency, based in Meridian, that forecasts growth in Ada and Canyon counties and allocates federal grants to transportation projects.

“If we want to have a rail by 2040, we need to be planning on it now,” said Liisa Itkonen, Compass planning director. “The long-range plan looks out at least 20 years into the future, and the forecast for 2040 population is that we would have over a million people in the two counties. And by then, yes we would have a need for something.”

To see what rail options might work for the Treasure Valley, Compass ventured south to Salt Lake City.

“We have pretty robust rail system, we’ve got some high-frequency bus routes and we’ve got our commuter rail system that runs 90 miles, about, from Ogden to Provo,” said Steve Meyer, interim president of the Utah Transit Authority.

Meyer hosted a presentation at Compass Wednesday in Meridian.

Roughly 1.2 million people live in the Salt Lake City metropolitan service area — almost double the Boise MSA population of 691,423, according to government statistics.

While living in the Salt Lake City metro area without a car is doable now, it wasn’t that way 30 years ago.

The Utah Transit Authority was founded in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1999 that it built its first rail — a light rail — in Salt Lake City, Meyer said.

Meyer said it is all part of the “Envision Utah” plan, which looked at how the state, specifically the Salt Lake City area, wanted to develop.

“If you haven’t done something like that in the Treasure Valley, it really is valuable,” Meyer told the crowd gathered Wednesday evening. “It gets people speaking a common language.”

When officials in Utah looked at the plan for developing a mass transit system versus the cost of building infrastructure to keep up with sprawl, implementing regional mass transit was significantly cheaper in the long run.

Additionally, mass transit was less ecologically harmful to the Salt Lake valley, which already traps dirty air because of its bowl structure, he said.

Utah and Idaho are similar politically in that the state legislature is majority conservative. You can make a conservative argument for a transit system, Meyer said.

“It’s not socialism to have a transit system,” he said. “It’s good public policy.”

Compass has been interested in “some sort of commuter rail service for a really long time,” Itkonen said. “If you take the Salt Lake Valley-Wasatch Front map and you take the Treasure Valley map and you rotate it 90 degrees, it is almost exactly the same.”

There’s no commuter rail in the current master plan, but Compass is discussing the prospect, Itkonen said.

“What would an east-west corridor look like?” she said.

There are a number of tracks laid in the area already, but none service a passenger train, only freight. Currently, Union Pacific runs a freight train through Nampa and Caldwell.

Similarly, the Boise Cut-off run from Nampa, through Meridian and around through the Boise Depot, carries only freight right now, but could carry passengers, Itkonen said.

The last time Treasure Valley was serviced by a passenger rail was in the late ‘90s, when Amtrak discontinued service to the area. However, the conversation today is much different, Compass spokeswoman Amy Luft said, as it poses the questions of if and how this area could benefit from regional rail access, not a cross-state train such as an Amtrak.

Implementing a passenger train system would, in theory, alleviate the woes of commuting to work without a vehicle for many area residents. However, the planners must first navigate the bureaucracy — or lack thereof — of funding a regional transit option.

Idaho is one of only two states that doesn’t have a dedicated funding source for public transit options, Itkonen said. That means cities must provide funding for local option transportation.

However, if the Legislature were to propose a vote that would allow residents to decide if they wanted to be taxed, a dedicated funding source for transportation could be established. Establishing a dedicated source of funding would also open the door for federal funding through programs where the federal government matches transit investment.

The Salt Lake City local option sales tax is set at roughly $6.80 per $100. Most of the funding for the Utah Transit Authority’s transit system, 64 percent, comes from the local option tax. An additional 16 percent comes from the federal government, 13 percent comes from passenger revenue and 7 percent comes from other unidentified sources.

An obstacle for the Treasure Valley, and Idaho in general, is the state does not allow a local option sales tax, except for resort towns such as McCall. First, Idaho lawmakers would have to pass legislation enabling citizens to vote on it.

This is hardly a new conversation. Compass completed a study in 2009 and looked at what different modes of mass transit would look like for the area and in 2012 published its 2040 master plan.

“The interest is there, we hear a lot from the public,” Itkonen said.

The most frequent request is a commuter train between Boise and Nampa, she said.

“Our bus system is very limited, to put it nicely,” Itkonen said.

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