Letters from the West

Trump’s infrastructure vision challenges Idaho communities to find their own

The Valley’s Interurban railway ran through Meridian, as shown in this photo dated about 1912.
The Valley’s Interurban railway ran through Meridian, as shown in this photo dated about 1912. The Meridian Historic Society

The policy for which President-elect Donald Trump has the most bipartisan support is his vision for rebuilding America’s infrastructure.

During the campaign, he got headlines and laughs when he compared the state of the American rail system to that of other nations.

“They have trains that go 300 miles per hour,” Trump told supporters during the campaign. “We have trains that go chug …”

He’s talking about spending $1 trillion on roads, bridges, trains, airport power grids and water projects.

His vision will face pushback from his own party, but he has a pitch that Treasure Valley leaders can emulate as they seek to build a transportation system to meet the needs of a population expected to grow from 650,000 to 1 million residents by 2030.

“On the federal level, this is going to be an expensive investment, no question about that. But in the long run it will more than pay for itself,” Trump said during the campaign. “It will stimulate our economy while it is being built and make it a lot easier to do business when it’s done — and it can be done on time and under budget.”

To accompany this national vision, we need to have our own statewide and regional visions for moving people and goods while keeping our air clean, our commutes short and our communities livable.

Trump’s talk reminded me of the conversation in the Treasure Valley when I arrived 20 years ago. Then, Republican Mayor Brent Coles captured the public’s imagination when he spearheaded an effort to bring the RegioSprinter commuter train for a demonstration run in the Treasure Valley. It rode the rails between Boise and Nampa for two weeks, giving residents a glimpse of what a commuter train might mean for the area.

Today we wouldn’t have to look to a German firm. MotivePower Inc., based in Boise, builds and refurbishes diesel and electric locomotives and its parent firm handles all kinds of transit options.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, have tried over the years to find ways to get east-west Amtrak service through Oregon and Idaho. These and other efforts to improve rail alternatives for Treasure Valley residents have been largely squashed by the question of how to pay for such systems.

With President-elect Trump working to flesh out his plan to rebuild America, it seems like a good time for Idaho communities to look at themselves and determine what they want in the next 20 years. Before we can seriously talk about money, we need to get local consensus on what we want. The last time we had such a moment was President Obama’s $832 billion stimulus plan in 2009, which financed primarily “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects. Communities that weren’t ready lost out; an effort to rush Boise’s proposed Downtown streetcar failed.

Each community will need to have its own vision if it is going to be part of a larger plan. Does Idaho’s fastest-growing city Meridian want to have bus service? Does Boise want the buses to run later or more frequently?

Do Nampa and Caldwell residents want more bike-friendly options? Do they want to link themselves better to Boise’s Downtown and the airport?

Building a dedicated lane for buses on State Street seems to be a no-brainer, but how about Eagle Road? Valley Regional Transit is working on its Valleyconnect 2.0 plan that could address some regional issues.

The City of Boise is way ahead of everyone right now with its Transportation Action Plan pushed by Mayor Dave Bieter and endorsed by the City Council. It doesn’t lock in projects, but instead talks about the mobility choices residents want and the alternatives for get there. Having learned from the last time, the city wants to build support for action before it proposes specifics.

Boise’s plan doesn’t address just Downtown, but all neighborhoods.

How we will pay for what each community says it wants remains an issue, obviously. But the discussions over the past 20 years usually stop when we begin talking about a local-option sales tax or other means to help cities to finance growing needs. But we really haven’t had specific projects on the table for our state leaders to consider.

A group of Idaho CEOs formed Idaho 20/20 to develop a conservative policy group to study issues like these and to gather facts and research that could help the state’s leaders develop a vision that can guide Idaho forward. A lot of the focus of decision-makers over the past five years has been on Idaho’s education and job training.

But Idaho 20/20 will soon release a report done by Boise State University that will directly link the state’s education funding woes to its infrastructure backlog. Echoing Trump’s argument, Tommy Ahlquist, head of the real estate company that developed Boise’s Eighth & Main building and its new underground transit station, says developing a vision and following through on transportation projects will create jobs and attract new business that will generate money for Idaho schools.

“It all goes together,” he said Thursday.

This kind of thinking and planning doesn’t have to stop at the metropolitan line. It can also help make rural communities stronger. And infrastructure includes water and sewage treatment plants that are both under-sized and outdated across the state.

Rural development these days depends on air service and several parts of Idaho could attract more visitors and full-time residents if they had better air service, which in part depends on better airports. Idaho has great potential to develop its untapped solar, wind and geothermal energy potential, but it needs high-power transmission lines to carry electricity to markets.

Trump is confident that his national vision will pay for itself over the long run. Idahoans can follow his lead and develop their own visions that would pay off with economic opportunity and improved livability.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker