For years, a group of economic and government leaders in Boise has laid the groundwork for a project to attract manufacturers and offshoot businesses to the Treasure Valley.
Located southeast of the city, this "transload facility" would allow the loading and unloading of a full-size, 100-car train. It could even become the center of a larger park featuring all kinds of industrial uses, including storage for products and materials; assembly or manufacturing of inbound goods; and consolidation, such as baling, of outbound recycleables and other freight.
Boise Valley Railroad marketing manager Carl Legg said Friday that he's "putting a package together with a multitude of customers" to develop such a site. He wouldn't say who those customers are, what the park might end up looking like or how much it would cost. He's hoping for a groundbreaking this year.
"We're long beyond checking the temperature," he said.
Boise Valley Railroad is a division of Kansas-based rail firm Watco Cos.
The park Legg has in mind couldn't handle truck-size shipping containers, but it would accommodate a variety of products and container shapes.
John Brunelle, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter's former assistant for economic development, was one of the people who pushed for a transload facility before he took a job as the executive director of Capital City Development Corp., Boise's urban renewal agency.
The transload facility isn't in Brunelle's shop anymore, but he still cares about it.
"It would be very successful and I hope they keep working toward that goal," he said.
Besides helping recruit new businesses, Brunelle said, a transload facility would help sustain some of the businesses already operating here.
"These are long, kind of marathon projects, but I think it's not a matter of if," he said. "It's when."
When trains deliver freight to Boise from other states or regions, Union Pacific sends it on its line south of the city to a junction near Nampa, where it's dropped off.
From there, Boise Valley Railroad sends the Boise cargo on a line that the city owns and the company manages. The rest of the Union Pacific train continues on to its destination, say Salt Lake City or Portland; it picks up the Boise cars later, on its way back through the Nampa junction.
This scenario adds time and cost - and not just for the Boise businesses receiving and sending cargo. It also means the train isn't taking a full load to its final destination, which reduces the railroad company's profits.
Eventually, Union Pacific could decide that serving Boise isn't worth its time or trouble, said Brian Greber, a Boise State University economist who published a study two years ago on the feasibility of a transload facility in Boise.
Even if the railroad does continue sending goods to and from Boise, Greber said, it could price the service higher than sending them by truck, which is usually a more expensive option.
That would force businesses to rely exclusively on trucking to move freight in and out of the city. Higher costs would hurt the businesses' competitiveness - one reason economic experts and businesspeople in Boise want to see a large-scale transload facility near the city.
"It would help save companies money and allow them more capabilities in terms of how they ship large amounts of product or raw materials," city spokesman Adam Park said. "This would be something that could really help take Boise to the next level."
THE PERFECT SPOT
There are several train-to-truck loading facilities around the Treasure Valley, Greber said. But they're all small, capable of handling maybe eight to 15 cars at a time and designed for a single product, such as grain or textiles.
To make Boise a destination and source for railroad freight, Greber said, the city needs a facility where an entire full-size train can load and unload.
Greber's 2012 study identified one good location: a 47.6-acre piece of ground a couple of miles south of the Gowen Road-Interstate 84 interchange. The lot has three benefits rarely found together near cities of any size:
It's right next to a rail line. In this case, the line is an 18-mile spur the city of Boise owns. It stretches from the old Orchard townsite in the desert southeast of the city to near the Broadway-I-84 interchange.
Quick freeway access. Trucks could easily move between the transload facility and I-84, a crucial Northwest shipping corridor.
Trucks wouldn't have to go through any high-traffic or congested areas as they travel between the transload facility and the interstate. Adding a bunch of truck and train trips in cities bogs down traffic, slowing delivery of goods and irritating people who live there.
"For every rail car ... you have four trucks going out, so think about that volume," Greber said. "If you have 100 carloads, you have 400 tractor-trailer loads. And if it's something smaller than a tractor-trailer, it could be anywhere from four to eight trucks going out for every car coming in."
Another potential advantage is the fact that the city of Boise owns the lot that Greber eyed for a transload facility.
In his study, Greber estimated that a transload facility would cost $15.5 million and a full industrial park would cost $28 million. That money would have to come from private hands, Park said, likely a railroad company such as Watco or a partnership between the railroad and a developer or other partners. The city would lease or sell its property for use as a transload facility or industrial park.
Sven Berg: 377-6275