Utah Transit Authority officials say they are "pretty optimistic" about Utah's ability to receive federal funding that will help state transportation officials study the possibility of restoring commuter rail service to Idaho and Nevada in the near future.
Jay Fox, the agency's director, told a joint KSL-Deseret News editorial board Monday that he supports the idea of creating more north-south passenger rail corridors in the region, especially since that option is almost nonexistent in the West, except along the Pacific Coast.
The topic was scheduled to be discussed in further detail during the Utah Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee on Wednesday afternoon, but the committee was unable to get to the subject before a special legislative session was called to order.
However, UDOT officials confirmed to KSL.com that the agency did apply for a grant through the Corridor Identification and Development Program led by the Federal Railroad Administration, which would help the agency study passenger rail service restoration between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, in partnership with UTA and the Nevada Department of Transportation.
The Idaho Transportation Department applied for the same grant to help study the same service between Boise and Salt Lake City in coordination with UDOT, UTA and the city of Boise.
"At this point, these are just exploratory study efforts and do not necessarily mean that passenger rail is moving forward," said UDOT spokesman John Gleason in a statement Friday.
It's unclear when the Federal Railroad Administration will announce which projects it will provide money to through its program, which seeks to "guide intercity passenger rail development throughout the country and create a pipeline of intercity passenger rail projects ready for implementation." Its deadline for states to submit proposals was March 20.
The three states should know later this year whether they will get the grants to study the idea further, according to Fox.
"I would say, given the nature of our relationships with the (Federal Railroad Administration) and the conversations we've had with Amtrak, we're pretty optimistic," he said.
Salt Lake City leaders initiated "preliminary" conversations with leaders in Boise and Las Vegas last year. The idea would be to restore the old Pioneer and Desert Wind lines, a pair of lines that connected Utah's capital to the two other cities that were discontinued in 1997. The idea immediately gained the support of Utah transportation officials, even if UTA wouldn't run any of the rail services.
Fox explained that UTA became involved because he believes it would not only build public transportation options in the region but could also enhance the commuter rail service that already exists across the Wasatch Front through the FrontRunner.
"We have 83 miles of what could be a larger intercity corridor," he said. "I think that would not only be great for Utah and the surrounding areas but also great for us."
It's also possible that Amtrak, which operates on Union Pacific lines, could operate service using UTA's FrontRunner line, which would allow the commuter train to run "more effectively" through the Wasatch Front, he added. That's something that could be possible once the agency completes its double-tracking project, which may not happen until at least 2028 or 2029.
The $966 million double-tracking project is something that could also enhance FrontRunner's speed, frequency and capacity, as well as unlock the ability for UTA to provide Sunday service.
The possible commuter rail study comes as passenger rail advocates pushed for Utah to consider adding more rail service. Dan Bilka, the co-founder of the nonprofit rail advocacy organization All Aboard Northwest, told KSL.com last year that he believes trains could help improve the country's transportation infrastructure, providing more options than what's on the road or in the air.
"Our ultimate vision is for a seamless transportation network," he said at the time. "We don't see passenger rail as an end-all-be-all of transportation but as a crucial missing middle that really makes the other modes of transportation work well and effectively."