Utah Senate President disappointed by application error that derailed SLC-to-Boise train | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Utah Senate President disappointed by application error that derailed SLC-to-Boise train 

Runaway Train

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click to enlarge Passengers debark from Amtrak's California Zephyr at Salt Lake Central Station. - BENJAMIN WOOD
  • Benjamin Wood
  • Passengers debark from Amtrak's California Zephyr at Salt Lake Central Station.

CAPITOL HILL—Utah Senate President Stuart Adams said Friday that he's seen firsthand what an asset passenger rail can be, and he's "disappointed" that an apparent error by Idaho transportation officials has delayed efforts to restore train service between Boise and Salt Lake City.

And while he expressed confidence in the ability of the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) to oversee passenger rail expansion and improvement, Adams was broadly critical of the state's public transit network, which sees too few trains running at too slow speeds on too little track.

"We're not a third-world country, I hope," Adams said. "We're acting like perhaps we are."

Adams was responding to the news—first reported by Don Day of BoiseDev—that Idaho had mistakenly submitted it and Utah's application for funding to study rail restoration to the wrong Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) program, missing the deadline for consideration in a historic round of Corridor ID grants awarded in December.

The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) was responsible for submitting the application on behalf of itself and UDOT, as well as partner cities Boise, Nampa, Caldwell, Pocatello and Salt Lake City. If approved, the application would have funded a study of restored service on Amtrak's Pioneer Line, which was discontinued in 1997, but it was erroneously sent to the FRA's Intercity Passenger Rail Grant Program.

“We made a mistake,” ITD spokesperson John Tomlinson told BoiseDev. “Inadvertently, one of our staff members submitted the application for this Corridor ID to the wrong link.”

Local rail advocates were surprised when the Pioneer Line was omitted from the Corridor ID award list in December, as Amtrak is actively pursuing nationwide rail expansion under the 2023 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. A separate proposal to study restoration of the Desert Wind line between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas was also omitted from FRA's awards, and it is unclear why that proposal was denied, or if it too was subject to application errors.

UDOT was responsible for submitting the Desert Wind request for funding, and spokesman John Gleason told City Weekly the department was not aware of errors in either application. But Gleason also told the City Cast Salt Lake podcast that UDOT had been made aware of problems with the Idaho proposal, according to producer Emily Means. Gleason did not respond to City Weekly's requests for clarification and has generally avoided commenting on the department's passenger rail efforts, as well as other transportation topics.

"We haven't been informed of any issues, and to our knowledge the application was properly filed," Gleason said in an email before City Cast's episode aired. "We have not yet had our debrief with FRA."

While the Pioneer and Desert Wind lines would most likely be operated by Amtrak, Adams has frequently stressed the need to improve the performance of Utah's Frontrunner train, operated by the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). Most of the Frontrunner line, which runs from Ogden to Provo, is a single track of rail, limiting service frequency to 30 minutes during peak travel hours and 60 minutes off-peak. The train's speed is also limited to a maximum of roughly 70 miles per hour due in large part to a high number of at-grade crossings, and most of its stations are located in remote, hard-to-access areas, severely limiting the train's utility and appeal.

A "strategic double-tracking" effort is currently underway and scheduled to be completed in 2029, which would allow for 15-minute frequencies during peak hours. Lawmakers have also created incentives for cities to develop Station Area Plans for housing density and retail destinations within walking and cycling distance of Frontrunner and Trax light rail stops. Those plans have catalyzed development in areas like Vineyard and Point of the Mountain, and some cities, like Payson and Spanish Fork, are developing area plans in anticipation of future Frontrunner extension south of Provo.

"We're on our way to double-tracking," Adams said. "There's so many opportunities out there. We're working on all of them and we have to make public transit more efficient, because it is the future."

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, said the Legislature has approved "unprecedented" transit investments in recent years and that lawmakers understand the need for a more robust passenger rail network as the state's population increases.

"There's only so many roads we can build," Cullimore said.

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Benjamin Wood

Benjamin Wood

Bio:
Lifelong Utahn Benjamin Wood has worn the mantle of City Weekly's news editor since 2021. He studied journalism at Utah State University and previously wrote for The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News and Entertainment Weekly

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