If you’ve ever stood next to a moving train, you know why Union Pacific is skeptical about a pathway alongside the railroad tracks it owns between Nampa and Boise.
You can feel the danger in all that clanging iron as a train rattles down the line. Now imagine you own the railroad and someone wants you to let the public — just any old person — ride bicycles and walk within a few feet of your iron horse and the cars it’s dragging.
“Having a trail like that close to an active rail line is a safety concern,” Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs said.
That said, Union Pacific isn’t dead-set against the pathway, which would run from Nampa through Meridian and into Boise — likely ending at the Boise Depot — with a possible spur that runs northward and connects to the Boise River Greenbelt. The railroad company is willing to talk about allowing such a path on its right-of-way, Jacobs said. It’s just that the company won’t start that conversation until the path’s design satisfactorily addresses safety concerns, he said.
The people trying to make a Treasure Valley “rail with trail” work have options. Fences and other barriers could separate the path from the rail line. But even though local governments and other organizations have been dreaming of the pathway linking Idaho’s three biggest cities for almost 10 years, they’ve settled on virtually no details.
“Is it going to be asphalt? Is it going to be concrete? Is it going to be 10 feet wide? Is it going to be something more? Something less than that?” said Cody Swander, the city of Nampa’s parks superintendent. “As a group, we don’t even have a firm realization yet of what we’re wanting to do.”
Obstacles aside, one thing is certain about a Treasure Valley rail-with-trail: The possible end result is impressive.
It would offer, for the first time, a non-car route linking the cities. It would augment the Greenbelt as a potential bicycle commuting corridor — exactly what transportation experts in city halls across the Valley want more of.
Such an amenity “would be awesome,” Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said.
Tom Laws agreed. Laws is a bicycle and pedestrian planner for Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, an association of local governments that focuses largely on transportation planning. COMPASS, as it’s known, is overseeing the broader Nampa-to-Boise rail-with-trail initiative.
Laws said the pathway could include amenities such as lighting, benches and landscaping to make it more park-like.
“There’s a lot of potential with this,” he said. “When you think of the ability to hop on your bike or walk from these residential neighborhoods from Downtown Boise to downtown Meridian, or ride from Nampa to Boise and never have to be on a roadway, it’s pretty exciting.”
Rail-with-trail is a new concept in Idaho, but the paths exist all over the United States.
In 2014, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a group that promotes this type of path nationwide, counted 217 rail-with-trail segments across most states. Idaho has several bike trails on abandoned rail lines, but is one of the few states where the conservancy found no trails next to active railroads. A study commissioned by the city of Meridian found that only one death had occurred along these pathways.
In the Treasure Valley, Meridian is the only city that has firm plans for something like rail-with-trail. Last fall, the city hired CTA Architects to design a half-mile stretch of path running through Downtown between Meridian Road and 8th Street.
This segment is different from rail-with-trail paths in a crucial way, though. It’s next to Union Pacific’s right-of-way, but it’s not in it. Instead, the proposed path runs over a right-of-way strip owned by the Nampa and Meridian Irrigation District.
That likely improves chances that the path will be built, even though building on the irrigation district’s property brings its own set of complications. It also could give a shot in the arm to the long-term dream of a path that stretches from Nampa to Boise.
Meridian has something no one else in the Treasure Valley can claim: a schedule for design, construction and completion. The city is hoping to wrap up design of the half-mile segment in September and build it between 2018 and 2019, said Steve Siddoway, Meridian’s director of Parks and Recreation.
“Building up momentum and having that first piece down there, I think, is really starting to get people excited about the potential of this in the future,” Laws said.
There’s no doubting the popularity of bicycle and pedestrian pathways with Treasure Valley residents, the governments they elect and the staffers those governments hire.
In recent surveys, Siddoway said, Meridian’s residents put new pathways at the top of their priorities for the city, ranking them above other popular items such as family activities, safety and security, and park maintenance.
That’s part of why Meridian is happy to be the proverbial first soldier out of the foxhole. A rail-with-trail pathway would be just one piece of a sustained effort at City Hall to build a network of bicycle and pedestrian paths crisscrossing the city and connecting it to other areas, such as Nampa and Boise.
“This is something that provides connectivity, mobility, opportunities for exercise,” Siddoway said. “We love pathways, and honestly, we’re trying to build them all over the city.”
It’s hard to know when or how a Treasure Valley-wide expansion of Meridian’s seminal pathway segment would unfold, assuming Meridian follows through on its portion.
“Some day” is the most common timeline mentioned by people following the Nampa-to-Boise effort.
There’s also the question of whether it’s best to tack extensions on to the Meridian segment or build independent segments and then work on connecting them later.
Money, of course, is one of the biggest obstacles. Even Boise Parks and Recreation director Doug Holloway, one of the most optimistic people you’ll meet in government, sounded skeptical about solving the rail-with-trail riddle anytime in the near future.
Building some 20 miles of path would be a huge cost, and it would probably require some sort of federal grant, Holloway said. On top of that, the cities and counties likely would have to compensate Union Pacific for the use of part of the railroad right-of-way, another “quite substantial” cost.
“With something at this scale, we’re going to have to be creative,” Laws said. “Are there private foundations, national grants that we could tap into as well? I think it’s going to be pulling from quite a few different sources and really having a creative approach to making this a reality.”