What’s next for passenger rail in Utah after missing the cut for federal funds?
When the Federal Railroad Administration released its funding list of new passenger rail routes in early December, Mike Christensen hoped it would be Christmas morning for Utah rail advocates.
“I checked the list like Santa Claus. I checked it twice. Probably more than twice,” said the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Utah Rail Passengers Association.
No matter how many times he checked it, however, the proposals to bring more trains to Utah were nowhere to be found.
Out of 91 applications nationwide, 69 were chosen this year, each getting up to $500,000 to start planning for routes with funding from the federal infrastructure law. The proposals to link Salt Lake City with Las Vegas and Boise didn’t make the cut.
It’s certainly a setback, Christensen said, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line.
“Sometimes you're just left with looking for opportunities to learn from failures,” Christensen said. “We can still get back on track.”
While federal officials didn’t give a reason for passing on the Utah proposals, Christensen said he’s heard for months that there were concerns about a lack of project support among the state’s congressional delegation, the Legislature and even the Utah Department of Transportation, which submitted the SLC-Vegas route application.
A lack of community engagement and communication also could have hurt Utah’s cause, he said. For instance, Christensen said he didn’t even hear that UDOT had submitted its application until weeks after the fact, while transportation officials in other states had already been working to build local support for their plans.
The silver lining of Utah missing out on this year’s funding, he said, is that it could serve as the wakeup call the state needs.
“The denial is actually working out well because people are starting to listen to and then take a second look at how this needs to be approached,” Christensen said. “I think it was a really good lesson to show that the top-down approach doesn't really work well.”
That’s why he’s formulating a different strategy to apply for the next round of federal funding in 2024.
His group wouldn’t be able to submit an application on its own because it's a nonprofit, he said. So he plans to partner with local governments — such as counties or multicounty associations, especially in rural areas the trains would serve — to build a coalition of support from the ground up.
The next application would also include rail connections to more Utah cities than the previous version, he said, and likely wouldn’t extend into Nevada and Idaho. The idea would be to both serve more Utahns and to widen the potential base of local political support.
“I really want to be able to show with these proposals that Utah is committed to doing this, even if they're just routes that serve people primarily within Utah.”
He envisions applying with proposals for two routes, one from Cedar City to Logan and another from Grand Junction, Colorado, to Logan with a spur stopping in Moab. Neither Logan nor Moab were included as stops in the previous applications.
He’d like future rail maps to feature St. George as well, because it’s a fast-growing community with strong social connections to northern Utah. That gets tricky, however, because St. George doesn’t have existing railroad tracks nearby.
A 2023 Southern Utah University study estimated it could cost between $5 billion and $8.5 billion to add the track necessary to divert the route between Cedar City and Las Vegas through St. George.
Even if one of the new proposals were to be approved in the 2024 round, it would still put Utah at least one year behind other projects that got funding in 2023 — including those from neighboring states, such as a route from Fort Collins to Pueblo in Colorado and another connecting Phoenix with Tucson in Arizona.
As more regional rail projects move forward, however, that could end up helping Utah’s cause. Christensen said the project to build a high-speed line connecting Las Vegas with California, for example, could make it more desirable to build rail through southwest Utah to connect to that hub.
Chris McCormick hopes so.
The president and CEO of the Cedar City Chamber of Commerce was surprised and disappointed to see Utah’s proposals get passed over. But even with this latest setback, he said support for passenger rail remains strong among the city’s business and tourism leaders.
“I definitely would like to see it become part of Cedar’s future, whether it's 10 years from now or 20 years from now,” McCormick said. “To me, the idea of just adding more lanes and more cars just isn't an efficient answer.”
More rail routes across Utah could benefit small towns even more than big cities, he said.
Rural residents have very limited options for traveling without a car, so rail could open doors in ways that air travel likely never will. Having trains drop off more tourists in small towns could boost local businesses, too. Then there are the potential environmental benefits, such as preventing more air pollution by taking vehicles off the road.
McCormick acknowledges that rail projects often come with steep upfront costs and take a while to return that investment. As Utah looks toward a future with continued growth, however, he said the state needs to play the long game.
“Too often we look at the here and now, but we don't look down the road,” he said. “We need to start really thinking in terms of 50, 100 years, 200 years down the road, because if we don't, we're going to pass on more congestion and more problems to future generations.”