Transportation plays a pivotal role in shaping the local business economy of Idaho, and its impact is only growing stronger. From bustling cities to remote rural communities, the transportation infrastructure in the Gem State acts as a vital conduit for commerce, fostering trade, connectivity, and economic expansion. As Idaho’s population continues to increase and industries diversify, efficient and reliable transportation networks have emerged as catalysts for business growth, propelling the state’s economy to new heights.
Four expert panelists – Elaine Clegg, Rebecca L. Hupp, Seth Olsen, Chris Williges – explored the future of transportation in Idaho’s cities and rural communities and the economic impact of Idaho’s transportation infrastructure at Idaho Business Review’s ongoing Breakfast Series event June 6 at The Grove Hotel.
Event moderator Steve Frinsko, business practice group leader with event-presenting sponsor Hawley Troxell, led the discussion. Here are some of the highlights:
Frinsko: What is your perspective of transportation in the valley?
Williges: “When people think about transportation, they normally think in terms of, ‘I have congestion, I need to fix that.’ But they don’t think about the fact that transportation really impacts the economy. And if you think back to the interstate highway system and why we built it, it was built for a defense purpose, but it was also built for economic development. When you think about transportation, construction, you should be thinking about how you are supporting that local economy.”
Olsen: “Right now, people in this valley spend billions, personally, to travel around. As inflation has been getting worse, and the lack of wage growth we’ve seen in the middle class–those are the folks that are getting squeezed, and part of the place they’re getting squeezed is on their disposable income. If they have to spend 25% of it on travel, that’s money they can’t spend in the valley on other things and money that would stay in the valley. We’re hoping to introduce a system that more people can use more easily or conveniently, but also one that will change the pattern of how we spend our money.”
Frinsko: Speaking of travel, what’s going on at the Boise Airport right now?
Hupp: “We have been undertaking a very aggressive capital development campaign to accommodate the growth that we’re seeing with the airport. I never thought parking would be the highlight of my career, but it is incredibly important to everyone who travels—parking is one of the highlights, and we will open our new parking expansion this summer. Passenger travel is up to 12% year to date. So we’re seeing very strong demand for travel in Boise and we’re seeing people probably travel for longer.”
Frinsko: We’ve heard of the Pioneer line potentially coming back, could you give us an update on that?
Clegg: “There’s $66 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure law over five years for trains. It’s over 10 times what we’ve spent as a country on railroads in forever, and certainly in decades. Part of that includes money to do a long distance study of routes that were discontinued in the past. One of those routes is Pioneer. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is charged with developing a recommendation for Congress by November 15 of this year, and from that recommendation, Congress will determine which of those routes they will direct Amtrak to add back into the national system. So, we’re very hopeful that the Pioneer will both get that recommendation from FRA and get that vote from Congress. When it comes time, we’ll let you all know who you can contact to help with that vote, I think there may be some action there.”
Frinsko: What’s going on with Highway 16?
Olsen: “They’re doing Phase 2 right now, which is the connection from Chinden Blvd. down to the freeway. There is a Phase 3 that will make transportation easier and better–more of a limited access highway that makes it easier to move across the valley. Highway 16 is really an example of the growth of Idaho, it’s of the highest in the country. So, we need to do what we can to try and stay ahead of that. Transportation is a big piece of that, and how we help people move in one way or another. Highway 16 has been in the works for years and years, and it has been an ongoing effort and will continue to be so as there are plans to extend it north from Highway 44 once Phase 3 is done.”
Frinsko: Let’s take a look at the bus system, what is on the horizon there, and the urban transportation issues we’re seeing in the Treasure Valley.
Clegg: “I often hear, ‘well, I see empty buses all over the place. Why? Why should we support you?’ We have empty buses because frankly, sometimes in the day, they’re empty just like the roads are empty. We also have empty buses because some of our routes can’t run very frequently. Right now, most of our routes only come once an hour–maybe if you support the 15 minute circuits on that bus, it wouldn’t be empty. So, I hope that we can begin thinking about transit a little bit differently, not about what is, but about what might be, just like we think about highways–what might be if we made that investment. And what might be, I believe in this valley is that we would move a lot more people a lot more efficiently, than through whitening roads.”
Frinsko: We’ve heard about the various methods of transportation. Could you talk more about how all of these impact our economy and its growth?
Williges: “Moving goods from a manufacturer’s standpoint, if you can move goods easily, it just makes operations a lot easier. From a person’s standpoint, it means that you can get to and from work, which is great for you, but it’s also great for your employer. It means that you have a greater catchment area both for goods and for people, and things can move well. That means that you have better supply networks, it also means you have better labor market matching, which means, as a person, you have easier access to more jobs, and maybe you’ll find a job that fits you best. And from the employer’s standpoint, they can just find that perfect employee, and so transportation has the ability to make firms much more efficient. From the economic developer’s standpoint, if you can have good transportation, whether it’s highways or rail or buses or whatever it is. If you’re an economic developer and you’re trying to attract employers or you’re trying to attract people to the region, you want infrastructure.”
Frinsko: Is there anything in particular that we should be keeping an eye on that didn’t quite get there this year?
Olsen: “There’s always more that can be done, right? We all know that it comes down to the decisions that we have to make as a public and what we vote for, and how we support our legislators and local leaders as well. If you get the support from the members of your community, you can provide a lot of things that you never thought possible if you get that support from the people that live there.”