Brady: With political winds changing, Meridian council member advocates for progress on rail-line transit

NEWS ANALYSIS

During recent city elections, candidates dreamed sugar plum dreams about rail transportation between Caldwell and Micron along the corridor owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. Meridian city council member Luke Cavener has heard it all before and doesn’t expect passengers to move through the Treasure Valley on the rail anytime soon. Instead, he envisions a corridor next to the rails but within the railroad’s right of way, just right for buses and perhaps autonomous multi-passenger.

[Outgoing Meridian mayor de Weerd on Treasure Valley transit]

As Meridian mayor Tammy de Weerd retires on January 13 after long advocating for rapid transit, it will be up to Cavener and new leaders along the rail corridor elsewhere in the valley to get things moving.

“This is going to be a ten-year effort,” Cavener said. “It must enlist the leaders of Boise, Meridian and Nampa in particular—the big players–plus Ada and Canyon Counties. Eventually, the state will need to step up and Representative Joe Palmer of Meridian is chairman of the House Transportation Committee which, over time, will need to look at the major transportation challenge here.”

“We are spending $200 million to widen I-84 just between Nampa and Caldwell for cars and trucks. Add 100,000 people, all driving cars, in the next decade or so and the costs of freeway expansion gets completely out of hand,” he said. “Meridian has long been a place people left in the morning to go to work somewhere else. Now, more people are coming into Meridian on any given day than leaving it. We are the center of the valley. We should be at the center of those seeking a solution.”

Two decades ago, Idaho senator Mike Crapo wanted to be part of the solution and still does, supporting what must first be a local effort. Crapo was among those pushing a 1997 trial run of a passenger train along the corridor but nothing came of that or subsequent efforts.

The rails between Micron on the east to well beyond Caldwell on the east is owned by Union Pacific Railroad. It has resisted any and all attempts to add passenger service. It has leased about 17 miles of track from near Nampa east to Micron to Watco, which specializes in short-distance commercial rail traffic over 5,400 miles of rail on 43 lines in the United States and Australia. It is an unlikely participant in any scheme to disturb its modest, three-times a day commercial train service through the valley.

[Amtrak back to Boise? Oregon group rallies to restore rail service]

Cavener assumes Union Pacific will never agree to the use of their lines but might eventually consider leasing a portion of its right of way for a parallel corridor devoted to buses and perhaps autonomous vehicles if enough political capital could be mobilized to support such a request. The right of way is 100 feet wide and the parallel throughway would need to be engineered like any roadbed.

A third, parallel path could be dedicated to biking and walking. The three would need to be separated by strong barriers sufficient for safety and the railroad’s liability.

Meridian has authorized, appropriated money and will soon construct a bike and walking path parallel to the rail tracks from downtown Meridian for nearly a mile to the west. How far this scheme—a path just outside the railroad’s property—could extend has not been explored but Cavener anticipates it will be extended over the years within Meridian—for bikes and walking only.

Cavener will push a bus solution over rail not only because it is considerably less expensive but because buses can roll off the corridor into communities to the north and south. Star or Kuma might be reticent to participate financially in a rail-corridor plan today, for example; however buses could easily exit the corridor to serve such in the future.

[Brady: Growing Idaho can find ideas for education, transit from neighboring Utah]

Today, autonomously buses are too slow for what Cavener has in mind. He’s ridden the prototypes in Las Vegas and they’re not ready for the speed that would be needed in the rail corridor.

However, autonomous long-haul trucks will start into operation soon. Can autonomous buses riding on dedicated corridors be far behind? How about smaller vehicles, like large vans?

The Boise Cutoff rail line in gray, with I-84 in orange for reference. BoiseDev map

There are at least two pinch-points on the Micron to Caldwell rail corridor, one where it crosses over Vista in Boise and another where it intersects with Milwaukee next to Boise Towne Square.

Another set of issues arises from having only a single corridor next to the rails but, Cavener says, it has been made to work elsewhere in the world.

“If there’s one thing we heard in every election in this valley is that traffic is getting worse and leaders are expected to take action before we become like coastal cities. We cannot serve our constituents simply by widening freeways,” Cavener said. “Sooner or later we’ve got to see what we can make of the one major and obvious place to start, the rail corridor.”

While publisher of the Post Register in Idaho Falls Jerry Brady founded an economic development now called the Regional Development Alliance. He lives in Boise.

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