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Critics say the analysis of Amtrak's Pioneer line overstates costs and underestimates ridership

(The following story by Erika Bolstad appeared on the Idaho Statesman website on October 5, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. A report outlining the staggering cost of restoring Amtrak service to southern Idaho "lacks imagination," say supporters of bringing back the Pioneer rail line.

They also think the railroad's consultant underestimated by 30 percent the number of people who would ride the Pioneer, a miscalculation they fear could skew the yearly operating costs unfavorably. And they're critical of the projected start-up costs of up to $493 million, calling them little more than conjecture.

"The study makes tomorrow look like yesterday," said C.B. Hall, who wrote a critique of the report for the Pioneer Restoration Organization, a volunteer coalition seeking a return of the train. "There's no imagination in the study. It's simply a recitation of things that once upon a time, didn't work."

The report drew the same criticism from Sen. Mike Crapo,R-Idaho, who has been leading the push for Amtrak to consider bringing back the Pioneer. Crapo said he has concerns about the costs, but called the return of a line that was discontinued 12 years ago a "very, very strongly supported and popular idea in Idaho."

"We provide subsidies to our transportation system in this country in every category, whether it be airports that we build and runways that we operate, or whether it be the roads and bridges that we build across the country," said Crapo, who wrote a letter to the chief executive officer of Amtrak, Joseph Boardman, calling into question some of the assumptions in the report.

Congress, pushed by Crapo and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Amtrak to study how much it would cost and what would need to be done to reinstate the Pioneer. Consultants with J.L. Patterson and Associates of Orange, Calif., submitted a draft report on the Pioneer last month and are expected to issue a final recommendation by Oct. 16.

There are four proposed routes for the train, which could start in either Denver or Salt Lake City and end in Portland or Seattle.

"There's no perfect way to analyze one leg of a single train with two branches," said Ross Capon, who heads the National Association of Railroad Passengers. "So it's not like we're introducing a standalone train between Boise and Portland. It's a leg of a transcontinental train. If anyone is interested in an honest accounting, which also gives the train a chance of moving forward, that's the way to do it."

Amtrak's study also failed to take into account a number of creative ideas on the ground in many Western communities, said Jeff Osgood, the mobility project manager with the Yellowstone Business Partnership. The nonprofit business group is studying a regional transportation cooperative for the 27 counties surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Their hope is to develop one consolidated booking system for the numerous bus lines that serve the area. If the Pioneer is reinstated and it stops in Pocatello, it would be a natural gateway by bus to both of the national parks as well as ski areas and towns with limited transit services.

"We were hopeful that there would be a lot of data available, but we were just generally disappointed because there wasn't really any data useful to our study," he said. "It really was more of a technical list of capital requirement, and didn't have a whole lot to do with economic impact, energy efficiency, or the economic benefit to the community."

Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said there are unlikely to be any major changes to the final report when it's released Oct. 16. However, they don't see the report as the final word on the proposal either, Graham said. Instead, it's a "launching pad, a conversation piece to get the discussion going."

Many communities along the route are begging to be on it. Weiser, just east of a proposed stop in Ontario, has asked Amtrak to consider it as a candidate for a station.

In August, the city of Boise issued a resolution calling for the return of the Pioneer. It's a vital service for southern Idaho, said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, and officials are hoping that there's more work on the federal level to make it happen.

Politically, there may be no better time, said Robert Puentes, a transportation expert with the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution. It's also a great time to try new things - like public-private partnerships and state- and local-backed rail systems.

"The political climate is as positive as it's been in recent memory," Puentes said. "This high speed rail obsession that was launched by the president has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of Americans in a way I've never seen before."

Monday, October 5, 2009

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