Salt Lake City train to Las Vegas, Boise: Feds deny funding to study project

A reason for the denial wasn’t immediately specified.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amtrak riders board a train in Salt Lake City in 2007. Utah transportation officials applied for federal money to study the possibility of connecting Salt Lake City to both Las Vegas and Boise through passenger rail, but the funding was denied, according to an announcement on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.

Utah transportation officials hoped to receive a pile of federal dollars to study the possibility of connecting Salt Lake City to both Las Vegas and Boise through passenger rail.

But that funding isn’t coming, according to a Friday announcement from the Federal Railroad Administration.

The Utah Department of Transportation had specifically applied for a $500,000 grant to study how best to connect Salt Lake City to Las Vegas by passenger rail. The Idaho Department of Transportation separately applied to study a proposed rail line connecting Boise to Salt Lake City, which UDOT supported, with Utah’s capital city acting as a bridge between the potential projects.

Both applications were submitted to the Corridor Identification and Development Program, a Federal Rail Administration initiative intended to create a pipeline of intercity passenger rail projects under the 2021 federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which invested in rail improvement.

The Friday announcement didn’t specify why Utah and Idaho’s grant applications were denied.

“At this time we have no current plans to move the study forward,” UDOT spokesperson John Gleason said in a statement after the announcement.

(Utah Department of Transportation) UDOT applied for a $500,000 grant that would fund an exploratory look at rail service between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. The application was denied, the Federal Railroad Administration announced Friday.

Across the country, about 90 such grant applications were submitted. Federal officials ultimately chose 69 projects to receive grant funding, according to a news release from the Federal Railroad Administration.

In Nevada, plans for a potential Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles high-speed rail system received $3 billion in federal support this week, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. And in Colorado, $500,000 in federal grant funding was awarded this week to a passenger rail project between Fort Collins and Pueblo, the Denver Post reported.

There will be an opportunity for UDOT to apply for grant funding again next year, Utah Rail Passengers Association executive director Mike Christensen said. But he feels Utah needs to “change its approach” if it expects to see federal support in the future.

“Officials have stressed the importance of local support playing an important role in their decision-making process,” Christensen wrote in an email, adding that Utah will need “a bottom-up, grassroots effort to build a coalition of communities in order to win over Utah’s congressional delegation, the Utah Legislature, and UDOT.”

Curtis Haring, executive director of the Utah Transit Riders Union, said the organization felt the funding rejection was disappointing but not surprising. He also cited a lack of enthusiasm from policymakers — in Utah and the surrounding region — as a potential reason.

“Policymakers missed the mark by not advocating for a more efficient use of land for our transportation needs — content to simply spend our money to add lane after lane of highway and road,” Haring wrote in an email.

The Utah Transit Authority last month hosted a hopeful luncheon to reveal plans for the proposed Salt Lake City to Las Vegas and Boise passenger rail projects.

“I like the concept of putting this region, this service area, right in the middle of the discussion for a larger intercity presence,” Utah Transit Authority executive director Jay Fox said at the time, “which will ultimately give people more opportunities to take modes of transportation that are not available to them right now.”

Gleason added after the announcement Friday that UDOT is “always looking for transportation solutions to address growth and help people get where they’re going safely and conveniently.” UTA on Friday concurred with UDOT’s statement, a spokesperson said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amtrak riders board a train in Grand Junction, Colo., in 2007. The Utah Department of Transportation had applied for a $500,000 grant to study how best to connect Salt Lake City to Las Vegas by passenger rail, but the application was denied.

The Federal Rail Administration aimed to pick projects that would impact cities and markets underserved by rail service, while also weighing what kind of local support already exists, said Caroline Decker, national rail business director for WSP USA, a consulting group that develops intercity passenger rail strategy, at the November event.

At the time, Decker said she believed Utah was primed and ready for more intercity rail, citing the amount of growth, beauty and successful transit already here.

A UDOT presentation in June estimated that travel time between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas through the proposed “Desert Wind Corridor” would likely be between 7 and 9.5 hours each way, based on previous Amtrak service that was discontinued in 1997.

The Idaho project, which aimed to connect Caldwell, Idaho, to Salt Lake City, was estimated at about 7.5 hours of travel time each way, with additional stops — like Boise and Ogden — included along the proposed route.

Haring criticized state policymakers Friday for what he called a love of adding “one more lane” in urban areas and Utah’s “essentially” car-dependent rural communities.

“We suspect that, as other communities across the country begin to rediscover the benefits of rail transportation in the coming decades, Utah will get on board,” Haring continued.