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Posts published in “Idaho column”

Together again, eventually

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The first redistricting kerfluffle in Idaho emerged last week over a proposal that almost certainly will not come to fruition in the next ten years, but very likely will after that.

So it wasn’t a bad idea to raise, just to get people accustomed.

It emerged out of the meetings of Idaho’s bipartisan redistricting commission, which from all appearances so far seems to be operating as a cooperative and professional group. (Yes, it actually can happen.) As part of the early stages of the process, they’re developing a bunch of plans and throwing them out there, not with the idea that any one of them necessarily is under serious consideration, but simply to make all the options visible.

They’re working on plans for Idaho’s 35 legislative districts and its two congressional districts.

One of those congressional district plans generated headlines about “Ada and Canyon - together at last!” And that’s sort of what would happen.

Idaho has had two congressional districts since shortly after the 1910 census, and from that decade up to 1966, Ada County was placed in the second congressional district - along with eastern Idaho - and Canyon County was in the first - along with points north. The district lines hardly changed during all that time, mostly a reflection of how inexact reapportionment was in all those years.

A 1962 Supreme Court case, Baker v. Carr, slammed down on the many states (Idaho being one of many) that weren’t reapportioning properly, and in 1966 Idaho came up with new maps both on the legislative and congressional levels - really, the first proper reapportionment in the state’s history. In that new map, Ada County was bumped from the second to the first congressional district, which had an immediate political impact. Ada was more Republican then than it is now, and the first district went from Democratic to Republican control. (That was the real jump start for James McClure’s long congressional career.)

Redistricting soon got more precise. After the 1970 census, mappers concluded that Ada County should be split between the two districts, with part of eastern Ada County and Boise carved off for the second. It’s been that way ever since, the congressional district line shifting only slightly through the middle of Boise to account for variances in the population to the east and north. There’s been no serious attempt since to place all of Ada in one district again.

It’s possible, though, as the new options map shows. The population of Ada and Canyon now is such that you could place a string of counties including those two from the Oregon line east through Twin Falls, and that would have enough people for a congressional district. It would be compact and, on its own terms, could make sense. It would have a unifying strip along Interstate 84, and there’d be some community of interest.

The problem would be the remaining district, which would link northern Idaho with eastern Idaho - or, to put it another way, Bonners Ferry with Montpelier. The two big pieces of that district would have almost no practical road connection or community of interest (even if their politics these days are similar). Such a district would lead to understandable outrage through the east and north.

So that map is not going to happen this time.

However. When the 2030 census comes around, there’s a good chance Idaho will have just enough population for three congressional districts, for the first time ever.

When that happens, much of the population increase probably will be driven by the Ada-Canyon area, and a district based around southwestern Idaho will become very likely, alongside much bigger (geographically) districts to the north and east.

So drafting that Ada-Canyon map this time around may serve a purpose: It may get people ready for what a three-district Idaho may look like in another decade.
 

Anti-clumping

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It does seem that city elected officials, absent a districting requirement, tend to clump their residences closely together.

In my small town, three of the seven elected officials have for the last two election cycles lived within a couple of blocks of each other, and two of the others, in another part of town, live nearby each other. It’s a small town, but this isn’t exactly widespread dispersal of elected officials.

I’ve seen this persistently in a variety of communities. It seems to be a not-universal but very common phenomenon. Are there reasons certain parts of many communities seem to generate more local activists? It would make for a useful study.

So while the underlying reasons may have been partisan when the Idaho Legislature acted to require cities of over 100,000 people to elect their councils by district and not at large, the effect is reasonable. (Two other Idaho cities, Meridian and Nampa, also are over 100,000 according to the newest census, but they’re arguing for holding off the change for another two years given limitations of the election calendar.)

Boise is a good case study. For generations, most of the city’s elected officials - council and mayor - have lived in one area of town, usually (not always) in or near the city’s North End. This goes way back.

One of the maps on the Boise city clerk’s council election website makes the point clearly. It shows (generally) where in town the current council members live. One of them, TJ Thomson (who will depart from the council after this term), lives on the west side of the city. All the others - Patrick Bageant, Lisa Sanchez, Jimmy Hallyburton, Elaine Clegg and Holli Woodings - live in or near the North End area.

That means no council members from southern or western (exception noted) or northwestern or eastern Boise.

The new districting approach will change that. New representatives will come from three new districts which haven’t sent anyone to city hall, plus a replacement for Thomson in the west Boise district.

To be clear, though: This is a moving picture. Only three council districts will be up for election this year, in districts 1 (the west, where Thomson lives), 3 (Boise north of Garden City and including the western North End) and 5 (the rest of the North End and some of the East End). The council members up for election this year are those whose terms were ending under the old system.

Here is what the city says about how that works: “Council members elected to these districts this year will serve two-year terms. In 2023 all six council districts will be up for election using a map that will be updated using 2020 census data. In 2023, odd-numbered districts will run for four-year terms and even-numbered districts will run for two-year terms so that council elections are staggered. We cannot legally shorten the term that a current council member is serving.”

It actually does make some sense - given the constraints of the law - but a lot of Boiseans probably will be wondering what’s happening exactly. And the people of southern and most of central Boise still will have to wait another couple of years before getting a shot at a council seat - unlike in the past, they’re actually disqualified from it this time.”

Again, though, this will straighten itself out with time. And odds are that the Boise council going forward will not be radically different from those of the recent past.

That’s not just guesswork. A generation ago, Boise was split brightly into red and blue sectors, with nearby neighborhoods leaning in different ways at general elections. Democrats and Republicans each could easily get elected in some parts of town and not in others. Today, the large bulk of Boise is more like shades of blue, some closer to purple than others but - and you can see this in recent state legislative results - all but relatively small pieces of town friendly toward Democrats. (Step a few feet outside city limits, of course, and conditions change.)

But the new representation will come from a broader reach, a wider area. People in many parts of town no doubt feel they’re being overlooked, and they have some cause for that. After another election or two, that may change, at least to a point.

Other cities around Idaho without districts would do well to watch and see how Boise does with this. It might provide a path for more of them to follow.
 

Return of the JBS

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Out in the deserts of eastern Idaho, I saw by the side of highways lonely and busy, the billboards promoting - in washed out colors with blunt language - the John Birch Society.

These were not old billboards. They were new.

Just as new as the reports from Kootenai and Benewah counties in northern Idaho, where local Republican Party organizations passed resolutions - and proposed the state party do likewise - supporting and urging endorsement of the John Birch Society. Brent Regen, the chieftain of the Kootenai GOP, backed the measure in his county and was quoted, “The John Birch Society is the intellectual component of conservatism. I fully support them. They are the brain trust.”

This a true throwback to the past, a time more than half a century old, when the JBS was new, growing and exerting influence in places like Idaho. After a show of organizational strength in the sixties, it faded in the seventies, and hasn’t been much visible since. Until lately. And that’s something Idahoans ought to take account of.

The JBS likes to describe itself as a supporter of the federal constitution and of limited government, but if that were all it was about, the group would be no different from half the other political organizations in the country. It has focused on much more, many dark and conspiratorial ideas. William F. Buckley, a name almost synonymous with American conservatism, warned of the organization as a paranoid menace and, a biographer said, “was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right-wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn.”

Buckley spoke with then-presidential candidate Barry Goldwater about taking a stand specifically against it, and Goldwater was sympathetic but largely dodged and weaved on the issue out of fear of alienating key parts of his base. Richard Nixon did denounce the group outright, and even Ronald Reagan warned of a “lunatic fringe” coming to dominate it.

Does this rhyme with today’s environment?

The JBS was the first large-scale purveyor of political conspiracy theories, arguing that Dwight Eisenhower was a knowing communist agent and that Black efforts to secure the right to vote amounted to nothing but a communist front, among much else. Buckley again: “One continues to wonder how it is that the membership of the John Birch Society tolerates such paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.”

But in this era of Q anon and election conspiracies, the JBS is seeing a rebirth. It has taken off in parts of Texas and in scattered other parts of the county.

In July, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee unanimously backed a resolution supporting the John Birch Society and urging “Idahoans who do not support our party platform to follow the example of Bill Brooks and voluntarily disaffiliate from the Idaho Republican Party.”

Brooks is a Kootenai County commissioner, elected as a Republican to the Kootenai County commission in 2020 and 2018 (unopposed in the general elections, though winning close primaries each time). He has fired off blasts at Regan and the John Birch Society and local Republicans’ associated with it. Recently he declared himself an independent, saying his “political beliefs have not changed. The local Republican Party has changed. They have shamelessly chosen to bind themselves to the John Birch Society. The Kootenai County Central Committee recently passed a unanimous resolution calling on all Republicans who don’t agree with the John Birch Society to leave the Republican Party.”

Local Republicans have responded with a recall attempt, results of which are expected this month.

It’ll be a referendum in part on the John Birch Society. Watch the numbers closely.

Watch also Republican Party developments in southern Idaho; those billboards didn’t get there by accident.

And keep watch too for how state Republican Party leaders respond to the local organization’s request. They’re probably feeling a little uncomfortable about it right about now.
 

Reordering the list

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In the 1963 territorial centennial edition of the state government’s Idaho Almanac, you can find population statistics for local areas, based on the then-recent census, that might come as a surprise today.

The list of largest cities in Idaho is topped not by the perennial big city of the state (and even territory) - Boise - but rather by Pocatello, which in 1960 had 39,194 residents compared to Boise’s 34,481.

And Boise was barely hanging on to second place: Idaho Falls, in a growth mode then with the development of the national nuclear laboratory, was close behind with 33,161, and gaining on the capital city.

The exact numbers may seem a little quaint now, six decades out. And they - and cities’ rank orders - got that way partly because of several flukes. Pocatello had only recently swallowed the neighboring city of Alameda (and wasn’t far from doing the same to Chubbuck), while Boise had been holding off for some years annexing nearby unincorporated areas that were rapidly urbanizing, especially on the south side of town. Soon after (and maybe prompted by some light embarrassment at losing the state’s pole position to Pocatello), Boise did annex new areas, and gained the most-populous label it hasn’t come close to relinquishing since.

Pocatello, on the other hand, now ranks sixth in population among Idaho cities.

It’s been quite a drop in rank order, and relatively recent. When I lived in Pocatello in the 70s and 80s it was firmly ensconced as the state’s second city, albeit well behind Boise by then. Since then it hasn’t declined; the Gate City’s population has continued to grow, and it did in the last decade. It just didn’t grow by nearly as much as some of the other cities.

If that sounds like a sad story for Pocatello, don’t be so sure. Some of the advocates for boom growth may fall into the category of being careful what you wish for.

The molten hot engine of population growth in Idaho is the city of Meridian, which in 1960 had just crossed the threshold of 2,000 people. (I remember it most clearly, from my early visits there in the 70s, when it still was about that size, and just a tiny country farm town.) Now, 60 years later, it is more than 50 times as large, a close match for, say, Scottsdale, Arizona, featuring the most stunning local growth trajectory in Idaho.

Such growth was not opposed by people locally, at least in general; population and economic growth long have been considered an overwhelming good in those parts. Some of those effects clearly are good, and much of the city has a prosperous feel, but Meridian still is a mixed bag. Its crowding (not only in traffic but in residential locales too) has become uncomfortable for some people. Its taxes are rising, ironic for an area that long has been anti-tax, but inevitable for a place needing new schools and police and fire stations, added infrastructure, and much more. Fast-growth cities are expensive places for home prices, government costs and other needs.

Next door in Caldwell - the city that grew so fast it bumped Pocatello from fifth to sixth - the pressures have become visible and public. In some parts of town, city officials are trying to draw a slowdown or maybe halt on residential development, in large part because there’s not enough room or capacity for commercial and service growth to serve all those new residents. Caldwell, another of Idaho’s hot growth spots, has a proverbial tiger by its tail.

Growth trajectories often have unpredictable lines. Where will the growth come from - and where might it avoid - in the next six decades? No telling.

Kicking the can

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Last November, I started a column with this barbed quote from Washington Governor Jay Inslee:

“I have urged the Idaho leaders to show some leadership. One of the reasons we have such jammed up hospitals in Spokane is because Idaho, frankly, has not done some of the things we’ve found successful.”

The states are still doing things differently, though both have experienced recent protests from people complaining about nearly anything the states have done to curtail Covid-19. The results between the two are distinctive. One study placed Washington among the 10 states with the highest vaccination rates, and Idaho among the 10 states with the lowest. An article pointed out, "In the 10 states with the lowest vaccination rates, there is an average of about 34 deaths per 1 million residents, and in states with the highest, the average is six deaths per 1 million, according to data from Johns Hopkins University."

This gets echoed, in turn, in Covid-19 cases loads and death rates.

The pandemic could largely have been over by now. Vaccination has worked; as with other vaccines, some cases still slip through even with the inoculated, but populations which are more thoroughly vaccinated have either avoided Covid-19 entirely or experienced few impacts from it. The return of masking is a direct result of people failing to obtain free and easily available vaccines. Blame usually is a tricky thing to conclusively assign, but it’s not hard to do in this case.

The pandemic is not over. Here are some headlines on the Idaho Statesman web site during a single day last week:

“Canyon County hit with largest COVID-19 case increase since last November.” “More Idahoans are using ivermectin to treat COVID-19. Officials warn it could be dangerous.” (The newest member of one of Idaho’s regional health boards repeatedly has promoted ivermectin for the purpose.) “North Idaho health system nears capacity as COVID-19 surge worsens. State adds 22 deaths.” “Sheriff vows to still fight Washington COVID rules after being hospitalized with virus.” “Christian radio host who asked if vaccine is form of government control dies of COVID.” “Unvaccinated dad dies of COVID in Texas months after child is born.”

Those headlines come a couple of weeks after the state narrowly averted an Idaho legislative session for which the plan was in essence to prevent almost anyone - including private businesses, most of which have been acting very responsibly - to take steps to avoid illness and stay healthy.

One of the top stories of last week was a warning from state health officials that some Idaho hospitals are two weeks away from being swamped with Covid-19 cases - this, months after vaccines have become widely available and only a little longer than that since Idaho hospitals previously were pushed to the breaking point.

Dr. Kathryn Turner, the state's deputy state epidemiologist, seemed to suggest in a news story that may be only the beginning: “The surge is driving our projections upward to about 30,000 cases per week by mid-October. This is beyond what we saw last winter, when our cases peaked in December.”

And hospitalizations in the state could run to 2,500 a week.

This could have and should have been not much more than a one-year pandemic: Three or four months ago, we were on track to containing it, with an end or near-end to the masking and all the rest.

Now, because of specific groups of people determined to wage culture war - and sorry if that offends you, but that is the reason - it continues on, and we’re stuck with having to contain a health fire that should be mostly extinguished by now.

We’re past the point where a newly mutated virus is doing this to us. We’re now more at a point where we’re doing it to ourselves.

Drawing the lines

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The numbers are in, the commissioners have been picked, and all is ready for Idaho to begin redrawing, as it does every decade, the lines for legislative and congressional districts.

This week the federal census bureau released the numbers states need to get reapportionment underway, and Idaho’s members of its districting commission (and they look like a good batch of appointees) are now in place. The state is good to go to proceed.

So what’s at stake?

One big impact is likely to be the inevitable part of the process. The metro areas in Idaho - the Ada-Canyon area and the Kootenai area especially - have been growing faster than most of the state, and they’ll be pulling in more legislative districts. In much of the rural territory of the state, districts will cover ever more geography (and will be increasingly difficult for legislators to represent). Ada, Canyon, Kootenai and Bonneville counties now account for close to half of Idaho’s population, and they’ll soon account for about half of its legislators, too.

But in Idaho the discretionary part of the work is, as has been the case for a while, less significant than in some other states. Oregon and Montana, for example, have new congressional districts to fit in, and how they’re positioned within those states, which have significant numbers of people from both parties in regions of those states, may affect how many seats each party may get in the Congress for a decade to come. In a closely-divided U.S. House, that matters nationally.

In Idaho, what probably (albeit not necessarily) will happen is that Boise will be redivided a little between the two congressional districts, moving a few of its precincts from the first congressional district (which runs to the north and west) to the second. The result might make the second district incrementally more Democratic, but it is nearly sure to remain landslide Republican; the difference is not likely to matter much.

The legislative district redraw will matter more on a partisan level, but only to a point. The basic reality is that nearly all regions of Idaho have significantly more pro-Republican voters than they do pro-Democratic. There are no big pools of Democratic voters that could, if unlocked by a remap, turn the legislature blue, or even purple; Democrats would need a lot more than that to make significant gains. That’s not to say it’s impossible, just that any advances they make will have to come through more basic organizing, messaging and other strategies.

The small number of substantial Democratic voting bases - the biggest in Boise, with smaller effective blocks in Pocatello, the Wood River Valley, Moscow and a few much smaller groups - are however small and scattered enough that a determined redistricting could split them and reduce by half or more the few relatively safe Democratic seats in the state. The Wood River Valley and Pocatello could be further divided by district lines, for example, and Boise could be sliced like a pie to reduce the number of Democratic legislators there. That hasn’t actually happened in recent redistrictings, however, and isn’t especially likely this time either; you’d have to throw out county lines and communities of interest as meaningful factors, which would leave a plan open to a court challenge. Two legislative Democrats, Senator David Nelson of Moscow and Representative Steve Berch of Boise, may be most likely to be directly impacted one way or another by the change in lines because of where their districts are located.

More important line drawing may be much more subtle. Within the Republican Party there are different strains of adherents, some more establishment-oriented, some more rebellious. (You may want to choose your own adjectives.) Redistricting can also affect legislators because of where they live; a new district may clump together more incumbent legislators than there are seats for all of them, a regular occurrence every 10 years. In a deeply-riven state Republican legislative caucus, it’ll matter who is thrown in together with who in the new districts.

The redistricting commission is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, but most of the really careful drawing is likely to be done with internal Republican considerations in mind. On many states redistricting is foremost a partisan battle. In Idaho, the upcoming primary elections are more likely to be a top consideration.

And in Idaho, that’s no small consideration.
 

The obnoxious strategy

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Being disagreeable, showing unwillingness to work with other people, acting destructively of our system of government - have these become attractive and popular selling points for Idaho candidates?

In parts of Idaho at least, they now may be, and we may soon have a clearer picture of how favorable a selling point among voters they are statewide.

In some ways on that question, Representative Priscilla Giddings demonstrated herself last week as the tip of the spear.

Prominent sectors of politics no longer are relating to accomplishing something useful, or even advocating for one choice or another about what would be best for us. The whole question of using government to improve our society seems, for people in this branch of politics, irrelevant.

Emotion and entertainment are, in some quarters, taking precedence. Often what matters is the attack - even the substance of the attack doesn’t matter much. The fact that this person simply is acting as obnoxious as possible seems to become a primary factor for some candidates of political support and encouragement.

The traditional approach is very much the opposite: Demonstration that you can play nice with others long has been one of the primary attributes candidates liked to show off and that voters appreciate. This makes sense if you think that government is or can be - however erratically - the source of something useful.

If on the other hand, you take an absolutist cynical view that government is nothing but bad, why not reinforce that by electing people whose approach and even purpose is the lighting of dumpster fires? Why would you elect such people unless they’re a living expression of the fury in your soul - and that’s what you want reflected back to you?

Elements of this go back quite a ways. Back in the 70s, journalists sometimes referred to then-Representative and later Senator Steve Symms as “the middle finger of Idaho pointed at Washington.” There was something to this, but he was unlike today’s crowd. Symms was affable and tended to get along with people, including adversaries; he was hard to dislike on a personal level. He did also have a clear philosophical agenda which he pursued within the system. But he laid some of the groundwork, in that much of the appeal he drew on had to do with protest and anger more than solution.

This strain in Idaho politics was smaller then, but it has grown and become more intense over time.

You can see it in the actions of Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin, whose approach to campaigning seems to involve generating outrage and cultural fury (the evident purpose of her “indoctrination” panel), targeting fire at the state’s establishment (her surprise executive order of this spring) and her cozy relationship with radical groups.

You can see it even more clearly in another announced gubernatorial candidate Ammon Bundy, who has to be considered a politically serious candidate for governor despite a record - involving periodic run-ins with law enforcement not to mention a lack of any constructive involvement with government - that would have rendered him politically ridiculous a few years ago.

And then there’s Giddings, recently recommended for censure by the House ethics committee, which would have been a political disaster not so long ago, but these days may be a political asset. She has attacked and dissed her fellow legislators (except for one who resigned in the wake of allegations that he assaulted a staffer) as well as a young legislative intern. She treated the ethics committee which was hearing her case with arrogance and contempt and brought her campaign into the hearing room.

She may be censured by the full House, but will she pay any political price?

She might lose membership on a minor committee, but it is, as noted, a minor one; her main committee, the budget-writing committee (the legislature’s most prestigious panel), would not be touched by the ethics panel decision.

And how will all this impact her race for lieutenant governor? Two or three decades ago, she would have been toast; today, she’ll probably pick up more campaign contributions and activist support as a result. There’s plausible reason to believe that in today’s Idaho this is a winning strategy.

How do you progress in Idaho politics today? Trash everyone and everything around you, claim you’re being conspired against at every turn, act with supreme arrogance and contempt for the law and even common courtesy, and cash the checks and welcome the supporters.

Or at least that’s what will happen as long as Idaho voters put up with it.

(image/Idaho Capital Sun)
 

Coming to a wildfire near you

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As I write this (on Monday), here’s what the National Interagency Fire Center - based in Boise, you’ll recall - has to say about wildfires in Idaho.

Idaho land on fire amounts to 195,355 acres, third-most in the country after Oregon (with its enormous Bootleg fire) and California.

Idaho has 23 NIFC-recognized active wildfires, more than any other state, which may mean that Idaho’s wildfire situation is especially complex.

The situation is worse than that suggests, though, partly because NIFC-listed major fires are only a part of the overall picture. The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, for example, said that within its bounds it “is managing 39 active fires, seven are contained, 22 in extended attack, and eight are being evaluated for further action. Today, hotter and drier conditions will develop across the region.” And just this week batches of new fires erupted, notably in eastern Idaho.

Many of these fires are not especially large, but they add up, and their sheer number makes it more difficult getting a handle on them.

Beyond that, these 23 NIFC fires are widely scattered around Idaho, mainly between the Canadian border and Boise, with others not far from Lewiston, Harvard, Orofino, Kooskia, Pritchard, Kellogg, Hope, Dixie, Salmon, Pierce, and McCall.

But southern Idaho has by no means escaped this year, and likely won’t as the season, which still has a couple of months at least to run, goes on.

And remember, the current fires are in addition to those that came earlier and those yet to come.

Warnings (from the governor, researchers, public safety people and others for months on end) that this may be a rough fire year for Idaho, much worse than the last few, clearly seem to be smack on target.

And of course there’s the subsidiary set of issues, like the smoke that has enveloped a lot of the state and will be drifting over more.

More than in prior years, most people in Idaho will have a personal association with areas that have been or are on fire. So many places in Idaho are, or have been, or will be, on fire this year, that nearly everyone in the state will have some form of personal connection to what’s happening.

In all of that, Idaho may come out with something useful.

In the last couple of decades or so, a rough consensus has started to develop over the question of how best to manage forests and other lands to avert disastrous wildfires. Obviously, we’re not there yet. But some progress is being made.

Some of the most visible developments in this area have been happening across the border in Oregon, where in several places timber communities and environmentalists, so often for so many years at each others’ throats, have been finding common cause in developing ways to manage forests. A report from the columnist Nicholas Kristoff last year told of a John Day stewardship agreement - small and imperfect, but still profitable for local businesses and workers and environmentally friendly for activists - showing how effective forest management is often more complex than either side would immediately want, and yet gives something to each. The deal involved both tree cutting and steps for careful forest management, yielding a situation that is neither side’s ideal but is working.

Disasters can have the odd effect of bringing people together. The conflicts over the environment that have typified so much of recent Idaho history could see a turning point. The many fires bedeviling us now could be the prompt to cause many people, enough to make a big difference, to sit down and think outside their traditional boxes.
 

Amtrak, maybe

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Could Amtrak return to southern Idaho?

It would be great to see, so many years after the service was cut off in 1997. For the moment, the odds still look less than even. But they’re better than remote.

No one, even the advocates, should overstate what it would mean. It would not fundamentally change the region or, likely, affect the transportation of vast numbers of people.

I remember using the Pioneer line in the 70s and 80s, when I worked out of Boise and Pocatello and on a few occasions needed an easy way to get to central Portland. It was useful transportation, and the feel of it was traditional - this is travel by rail, with a pedigree - and easy.

The service was daily, but it was limited. As I recall, I’d get on the train in Pocatello somewhere around midnight and arrive in Boise somewhat past dawn. Headed the other way, I’d board well before midnight in Boise and debark in Pocatello around four in the morning. In both cases I was in walking distance to downtown (at Pocatello, within downtown). The hours were not ideal, but they were functional. They didn’t interrupt a day’s activities, and they allowed for some sleep on the way. But that was the only scheduled run each day.

Stops were limited, too. There was a station at Shoshone, but by the time I was using the train, it wasn’t a very busy location, even when it wasn’t the middle of the night. Nor did the train stop in many other places.

Heading west, toward Portland, there was more daylight and stops were a little more regular. And at Portland, you could connect with the north-south west coast Amtrak route (which is still very much in operation and has even expanded its activities in recent years).

The trains were reasonably busy and drew passengers, but I don’t recall them as packed. From a pure spreadsheet standpoint, the trains probably serviced a none-too-massive number of people.

You could point out that some other forms of transport have gotten better over the years. Idaho highways are a grade up since the eighties, and there are more air flights available. (Bus service, though, isn’t as extensive.)

Still. Trains provide a special kind of link from place to place. In some ways southern Idaho is cut off from much of the rest of the country. (There still is one passenger rail Amtrak stop in Idaho, a very basic one, in Sandpoint.)

I know people who do all their long-distance travel by rail - they have a string of reasons why - and places without rail service just don’t get their attention.

So could southern Idaho Amtrak - presumably from Utah to Pocatello west through Boise to Oregon - actually happen, or is it a pipe dream?

It doesn’t seem to be a part of current plans for Amtrak expansion (which is on the boards for, as one example, the line along the Pacific coast).

But it does have serious advocates.

Senator Mike Crapo and in Oregon Senator Ron Wyden long have favored return of the line, and they’re now in key positions to press for making it happen, as the top leaders of the Senate Finance Committee. (It doesn’t set the budgets but has a key influence on the purse strings.) Obviously, some sympathy from Amtrak Joe Biden in the White House would be highly helpful too. Federal funding could be coming along at the right time.

And locally, a number of activists have been pressing for train restoration. All of the members of the Boise City Council have worked together on a resolution asking for the train back. The train depot near downtown has been maintained (by the city) ever since train service stopped, and easily could be put back to use.

It’s not time yet to head down to the station and wait for the train. But there’s at least some chance the wait may not be forever.