State and provincial leaders from the northwestern U.S. and Canada gathered in Boise this week for the annual summit of PNWER, the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. Bruce Agnew, director of the Regional Infrastructure Accelerator at the organization, sat down with Logan Finney this week at the conference to talk about the future of transportation infrastructure in the northwest region.
Read: Moving Folks and Freight Side by Side
Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
Hello and welcome to the Idaho Reports podcast. I’m Logan Finney. Joining me this week is Bruce Agnew, who’s the director of the Regional Infrastructure Accelerator with PNWER, the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. Bruce, thanks for sitting down with me.
Bruce Agnew, PNWER
So, PNWER is a multi-government organization that is five states in the United States and then a collection of five provinces and territories in Canada as well. Can you give me a little bit of context for what you specifically do with the Regional Infrastructure Accelerator?
Sure. Well, PNWER was formed in 1991, and it’s a public-private partnership, so our governing board is our state legislators. Our president this year was Idaho State Senator Chuck Winder. That’s why we we’re in Boise, because of the summit. And we have a delegation of Idaho legislators that are part of our governance structure. And then we also have a unique Idaho state council that advises PNWER on the 16 working groups that we have, and that is led by Ken Dey from Simplot and the Speaker of the House.
Our accelerator, that particular project was funded by the US Department of Transportation to accelerate projects in the five states. Now, in Idaho we’ve focused on railroads, Union Pacific, both in terms of getting agricultural products efficiently from southern Idaho, through the U.P. line to Portland and ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
We’ve been working with Elaine Clegg and folks at Valley Regional Transit to develop or support their development of a regional transit system, regional rail and a future intercity rail restoration project. Because Boise used to be a major passenger rail center going back to the Averell Harriman and Sun Valley days. And that service initially would be between Boise, Pocatello, Shoshone and Salt Lake.
We’re also working on the north part of the state with BNSF, and we supported the Sandpoint junction connector, which was the double bridge across Lake Pend Oreille. We’re working on some electrification and hydrogen projects around the Northwest for refueling or charging of commercial trucks. So we do a lot of different projects.
Yeah, some of the sessions this morning were particularly focused on passenger rail, but one of the sessions was the idea that passenger and freight rail need to cooperate, that they’re better working in conjunction together. Can you talk to me a little bit about those considerations?
Because, you know, as someone who grew up in Sandpoint, I know that there’s an Amtrak station there, but it doesn’t really connect to much of the rest of the state because of our odd geography. So I think for a lot of Idahoans, they might be familiar with industry’s use of freight rail, but passenger rail might not be as familiar anymore as it used to be. Can you talk to me about that?
Yes. This morning we had senior executives from Union Pacific and BNSF. We had agricultural folks from Idaho and passenger rail advocates, all in two different panels talking about, first and foremost, what we call high performance rail, which is to understand the operating needs of the host railroad. I mean, we’re talking about running passenger trains on Union Pacific or BNSF tracks. We have to understand what we need to do in terms of public investment in that rail corridor that allows them to serve their customers, both current and future customers, because we want freight rail, particularly agricultural exports from Idaho, to grow. So we can’t take any capacity away from those mainlines. So, projects such as joint investments with federal and state money and funding to put sidings in, highway rail grade separations, overpasses and underpasses on rail corridor.
We’ve been looking at kind of the Caldwell-Nampa area which can be fairly congested, and Kuna, for possible grade separation projects working with Idaho Transportation Department. The idea is what are the series of investments that need to be made in the corridor that protect freight rail first and foremost, but also provide an opportunity for additional passenger trains.
Now, Boise is unique because there’s a bypass rail off the mainline that services the old Boise train depot station. So, that’s where I understand Valley Regional Transit is proposing to supplement their bus service with a regional rail, and also work with both developers for housing opportunities, land development around the stations, and rail customers that benefit from delivery of product by rail versus truck. There are some great opportunities in the Treasure Valley to increase jobs and access mobility access for folks that are maybe commuting into Boise and find the interstate fairly congested.
Okay. I want to travel back up north for a second and ask you another freight question. The highly contentious idea of breaching the Snake River dams and changing the way that we manage that stretch of the Snake River is still very much a long shot, but sometimes it feels closer to reality than it has in a long time. One of the considerations there is that so much agricultural product gets barged down that river. Sometimes advocates of breaching the dams will say, ‘Oh, we’ll just ship it to freight trains instead.’ And that kind of gets glossed over. How much difficulty or how much of an impact would getting rid of those dams have on the greater rail network?
Well, this is an issue that, since it involves interstate commerce and federal energy policy, is really in the best hands of the congressional folks. But from our perspective, the Columbia-Snake river system and the dams that prevent floods and generate electricity and provide recreation opportunities are very important to the economy. The Port of Lewiston, for instance, is a very important inland port in North America. And lately there’s been some, you know, additional cruise ships and some really kind of cool things happening on the river.
The thought that somehow breaching those dams, when we need a whole lot of new clean energy to decarbonize transportation, to electrify appliances- You can’t take away from the base power supply. It just won’t work. So we don’t think those suggestions are really grounded on an economic reality, or a commitment to climate change by generation of clean electricity. You simply need the dams to do that.
In addition, in terms of the barging versus rail, there are a lot of industries on the Columbia River Gorge, particularly in the Oregon side, that have developed because of barging. It’s not just exporting grain overseas. There are a lot of industries that need that access to the inland port. So it’s a bigger issue than just simply breaching the dams and rerouting that that traffic on railroads. The other thing is the railroads really don’t have the capacity or the engineering and operational improvements that it would take to take away from long distance hauling to more regional hauling. You know, it’s just a heavy lift.
Thank you for that perspective. One of the other projects that the Regional Infrastructure Accelerator is working on is, like you referenced, zero-emission refueling for commercial traffic. Can you tell me about that program, and how you guys are also viewing freight corridors as not just for freight, but also just as connective tissue more generally for the transportation network?
Well, the Federal Highway Administration used to have a corridor gateway program where they’d actually fund interstate highway projects or border crossings. They did away with that several years ago, which was a big mistake. Now, right now, we are in the second year of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment program, which is good news – and has actually funded several projects in Idaho, including a highway rail grade separation project up in the Coeur d’Alene area.
But what we’re looking at with the Accelerator is to talk to the trucking industry, the shippers, the customers, the retail outlets. If it’s going to be federal law that we need to decarbonize freight trucks for instance – by whenever, the dates change – but we’re simply going to have to develop a substitute fueling network to go to either electrification, which tends to work better for short haul trucking or local trucking, where the truck goes back to a base every night. Hydrogen seems to be the way to go for long distance trucks that are, you know, overnight on the interstate.
Now, where do those facilities go? It makes sense to put them at truck stops maybe, and perhaps in partnership with some some tribal folks that have land along the interstate. The secondary question is, on these routes is there sufficient electricity to provide the kind of kilowatt hours to charge trucks, which take a lot more than personal vehicles or light duty vehicles? So in some cases, yes. In the Treasure Valley and Boise, there’s Idaho Power. But you get over into eastern Idaho and it’s more problematic. So, again, we need to produce more electricity and more clean energy if we’re going to decarbonize transportation.
But I suspect it’s going to take a longer transition period than people and some of the political figures who are pushing it realize. It’s just going to take a long time to change – not just the way that trucks are fueled, but the operation of the trucks, the maintenance of the trucks. There’s a world of difference between an electric or hydrogen truck and a diesel truck. These new trucks are also very, very expensive. So how do these truckers, whether they’re major fleets or whether they’re independent operators, how do they afford it? And those are open questions that are going to take a lot longer time than, I suspect, the political folks really fully understand. Part of our job is to educate them about the practical challenges to conversion.
Yeah, that has been kind of a throughline I’ve picked up in the conference. That’s something I’ve heard a lot, is a real clear-eyed vision of just how much it’s going to take to reach these really lofty goals.
Well, you know, back in the days of the 1900s with Standard Oil, it took decades to build gas stations and fueling stations around the country. So, it’s going to take some time to provide enough power and then not only to build the infrastructure, but to maintain it again. That’s why truck stops make a lot of sense, because there’s already some retail outlets and truck parking and some things that make it work for a conversion to either hydrogen refueling or electric charging.
Sure. Something else that’s unique about the moment that we’re in right now as a country is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or the bipartisan infrastructure bill. There’s a lot of funding that’s available in in this space right now. One of the sessions today was about just how much permitting can get in the way of accessing that money. Sometimes it can be difficult for a small municipality or a county who doesn’t have a lot of staff to access these kind of grant programs or buckets of funding that are available. If someone who’s listening to this podcast, who works for a small local government, is interested in trying to take advantage of that, does PNWER have technical assistance or resources available that can help them leverage that?
Well, we do. But in the tradition of PNWER, we try to work through the state so we have Idahoans talking to Idahoans. We have worked out a partnership with the LHTAC, the Local Highway Technical Assistance Council, with Laila Kral and her team there to be our agent here for dealing with smaller governments, working with the different highway districts around Idaho, both in terms of writing the grants- what they call NOFOs, Notice of Funding Opportunities, are very complicated – and most jurisdictions or tribal governments don’t have the staff to be able to provide the kind of documentation and technical analysis for these grants. So they need some support and we provide that, but we do it through local partners. We’re very close with the Idaho Transportation Department and their folks, and it’s complicated, but with some support you can successfully get these grants. As I referenced earlier, with some grade separation projects up in Coeur d’Alene area.
On the permit reform side, that bedevils us. The federal agencies, there’s multiple agencies with different timeframes. We don’t have a unified federal permitting process. You add state permitting on top of that. You’re looking at for even a clean energy projects, like solar farms or wind turbines or new nuclear – which is very popular here, small nuclear reactors – They take 7 to 10 years to permit, which is too long. But what also is important is our commitment to the environment. So we’re not saying that we need to change the substance of the environmental laws. It’s the process. It’s all about the process. We can have a good environment, and environmental mitigation for energy projects, for instance. But we need to do that in a way that makes economic sense, because if it takes you 7 to 10 years to get a solar farm up and running, that’s going to eat up your capital. That plus inflation, and all of a sudden your budget goes up 20 or 30% to take care of inflation. The delay in the permit, that’s not doable. That’s not what we want if we want to really transition to a cleaner future.
Okay. You – being on PNWER staff – are involved with organizing and logistics and getting everybody together here. Taking a step away from that, what’s been the most interesting or most insightful thing that you’ve heard at the conference this week?
Oh, gosh. Well, there’s an interesting session on feral swine and the invasion of these wild pigs up into the northwest. There’s just such a depth and breadth of topics here. All the clean energy and transmission capacity, with presentations by Idaho Power and Bonneville Power Administration. And there’s the fascinating cross-border livestock health issue, the invasive species with the mussels and the threat that they pose to our lakes in the Northwest coming from the Midwest and the South. Workforce training, the lack of skilled labor. Agriculture, all aspects of agriculture. The production of critical minerals, that was a fascinating session. There’s mines, I think it’s Perpetua mines up near McCall, they’re trying to develop these critical minerals so that we can electrify our cars and we don’t have to depend on China or the Congo or these other countries.
Not only are the depth and breadth of the topics interesting, the PNWER region itself is, which stretches from the Arctic Circle and Northwest Territories and Alaska to the Crow nation in eastern Montana. Republican, Democrat, blue states, red states, putting aside some ideological differences on things, but working together on clean energy, smart transportation, workforce training, economic development. It’s a pretty cool thing.
All right. Bruce Agnew, director with the Regional Infrastructure Accelerator with PNWER, the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, thanks for your time this week.
My pleasure. Thanks a lot.
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.