Visions of tunnels & skybridges as officials haggle over Downtown Boise's busiest streets

Don Day
BoiseDev.com EXCLUSIVE

BOISE - Could your commute in Downtown Boise see a drastic makeover?

In a quiet program about to get underway, the Capital City Development Corporation and City of Boise hope to “transform the heart of… downtown,”  but agreement between all parties involved isn’t guaranteed.

CCDC has hired Sam Schwartz Consulting to look at a revamp of Front & Myrtle streets - two roads which slice through Downtown Boise with busy ribbons of asphalt servicing tens of thousands of drivers everyday.

Sources tell BoiseDev ideas like tunnels and skybridges have been bandied about in private - along with more typical concepts like buffered bike lanes.

Before changes happen on Front and Myrtle,  CCDC and the City of Boise will have to get the Idaho Transportation Department to sign off as it controls the roads - technically state highways.  

“These are our roads, this is our system,” ITD spokesperson Jennifer Gonzalez emphasized.

Extensive reporting has uncovered a gap in approach between the City — and ITD.

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In fact, request for comment from state highway officials resulted in a blanket statement of support — but when we pressed for answers to specific questions, we were initially told the department would not have further comment.

This prompted a request for documents under Idaho’s open records law. The resulting series of emails highlighted the difference in approach, with ITD engineers working to strip away language that could be viewed as anti-car.

The Idea

After a meeting of the Boise Elevated group in May, CCDC began a process to find a consultant to help give ideas on how Front & Myrtle could change to improve the downtown core.

Both roads feature five lanes of traffic and stoplights at nearly every block.  They flow off of and feed into the Interstate 184 “connector” freeway system.  In the most recent traffic counts available from 2013, Front Street at 11th Street served more than 40,000 cars each weekday - with more than 3,800 pushing through during the peak drive time of 5pm.  Anyone who uses Front in the afternoon knows it can be prone to long backups as folks leave downtown and head to the west.

Front’s eastbound sister Myrtle also sees a large traffic volume - with more than 31,000 cars each day as it crosses 9th Street. 

The bottom line: these streets are busy.  If you’ve ever been stuck at a traffic standstill on Front at 4:30pm waiting for several light cycles - you know the wait can be lengthy. 

The roads do have shoulders that are commonly used as bike lanes and sidewalks - but they are skinny, and have been closed a number of times in recent years for construction projects like The Aspen Lofts, JUMP, Simplot HQ, Trader Joe’s, Boise Centre and others. 

Boise photographer Joe Jaszewski captured a common sight: a construction sign stored, backwards, in the bike lane.  Not exactly conducive to cyclists.

In its proposal, CCDC notes that the freeway-like system is a deterrent to businesses in areas like BoDo due to the barrier it presents to people on foot. Front Street and Myrtle are both clear barriers to pedestrians and cyclists, and can be painful for drivers alike.

The proposal negotiation

CCDC sent a draft of its request for proposal to Idaho Transportation for review early this summer.  What came back was a Word document full of red-lined text,  with more than a dozen substantial changes requested by ITD.

ITD and CCDC had differing approaches to the process from the get-go.

ITD District Three engineering manager Amy Schroeder even conceded the large amount of requested changes.

Two of the pages from the document showing some of the changes

Two of the pages from the document showing some of the changes

“It may look like we made some pretty significant changes, but we noted that even with the bulleted list we previously discussed being removed there were a number of statements throughout that might predisposed the outcome of the study,” Shroder wrote in to CCDC’s Matt Edmunds in June.

She explained in that message that ITD wanted the request for proposals to “be a bit more general and perhaps balanced” if the “intent is to bring in creativity and a fresh perspective.”

For instance:

  • In the very first paragraph, ITD asked to remove text that said the group wanted to “transform an auto-focused, high-speed” set of roads. Instead, they wanted the introduction to just say “balanced” - without referring to cars.
  • ITD wanted to remove wording that emphasized that “pedestrian and bicycle treatments are generally secondary considerations”
  • They asked references to the street combo as being “10 lanes” be removed.
  • ACHD chimed in and wanted the phrase “time-consuming and inconvenient” removed as it relates to pedestrians

In short, CCDC wanted a document that made clear the glut of cars are part of the problem — and ITD worked to remove that concept from the RFP.  The best way to sum up the difference of opinion might be this key phrase deep in the document — which CCDC proposed and ITD wanted dropped:

(The plan should promote a) “shift in focus away from moving cars with minimal delay to more holistic objectives and providing mobility equity between all modes.”

In the end, many of ITD’s suggested deletions were removed from the final document.

Boise City Communications Director Mike Journee said the process and number of changes is a “fact of life” with multiple agencies involved.

“We work with ACHD & ITD to put together options for streets in our city grid," he said. “They have specific missions and we have a specific mission. And it’s no secret that there are times when these missions don’t mesh. We do every thing we can to work as closely as we can.”

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Gonzalez says her department is also on board. 

“We have strong working relationships with all of our community partners,” Gonzalez said after questions about the documents were asked.  

On several occasions, she also cited a written statement attributed to ITD engineer Amy Revis.

“The Idaho Transportation Department is actively participating in the study along  with CCDC, the city of Boise, ACHD and others with a goal of finding opportunities to enhance all forms of transportation, while preserving mobility of the State Highway.”

CCDC also says it feels good about the process.

“The agency does not feel the RFP was weakened by the removal of the specific multi-modal language,” CCDC executive director John Brunelle said by email. “We do believe the process is on the correct track.”

Enter the Inventor of Gridlock

The Scwartz proposal says Boise has a big opportunity 

The Scwartz proposal says Boise has a big opportunity 

Once the request for proposals went out — two came back in.  One from a non-profit group was not selected, while another one from Sam Schwartz Consulting ultimately got the thumbs up.

If you Google “inventor of gridlock” - you’ll find the Wikipedia entry for Sam Schwartz on the first page.  In fact - his Twitter account is “@GridlockSam.”

He is credited for actually coining the term gridlock - which refers to big cities getting jammed up with lots of stuck cars.  He’s one of the nation’s top traffic engineers - and is well-known for his efforts in NYC.  His firm now helps cities across the country solve traffic woes.

His agency says Boise has a big opening.

“It’s not every day that cities have the opportunity to transform the heart of their downtown through one catalytic project, but today Boise does thanks to the groundwork the City and its partners have laid through prior planning efforts."

Perhaps not by accident, there are no cars on the cover of Boise's TAP. Click to view.

Perhaps not by accident, there are no cars on the cover of Boise's TAP. Click to view.

That Transportation Action Plan - or TAP - is Boise’s way of taking some measure of control over its streets.  The city has no formal ownership of the roads and highways — those are generally controlled by ACHD, or as is the case for Myrtle and Front - ITD.  The TAP plan was also developed by Sam Swartz Consulting.

Journee said the TAP is about more than just cars.

“(It) calls for providing real transportation choices for residents no matter what mode of transportation they choose: foot, bike, public transit or autos,” he said. “Those choices should be safe, effective and should optimize our infrastructure.”

Journee cited the recent Broadway Bridge project - a collaboration with ITD - as a model for its goals: wide sidewalks, buffered bike lanes and easy connectivity for those car-bound.

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He said the goal of the city (and by association CCDC) is to make it easier for people on foot or riding a bike to go north and south through downtown - which currently can be problematic due to the barriers that Front & Myrtle present.

He also notes the roads tend to slice downtown into separate pieces rather than one collective unit.

“We are looking for solutions that will help us remedy these challenges as much as possible, while recognizing their importance to the daily car commute,” he said.

The outcome

The big “so what.”  Two sources said, off-the-record, that those big ideas like tunnels or skybridges are on the table. But public officials wouldn’t comment.

Both ideas have been contemplated before - a skybridge was initially planned from the Boise Centre building over Front Street to a planned visitor's center where The Aspen Lofts now stands. An overhead walkway used to span several blocks, connecting The Bon Marche to parking. Plus, two skybridges are currently underway - one connecting the old Boise Centre building to the new building at the Grove, and another to be built across Avenue B at St. Luke's.

 And former city council member Alan Shealy proposed burying Front & Myrtle in 2006. At the time, ACHD said that idea would cost "billions."

The public will not have a say in the process. The RFP specifically notes that public stakeholders are not asked to participate.  Journee said though the public won’t get its say yet - public input will come once the initial process runs its course

“There will be plenty of opportunity for public examination and comment once there is an understanding of the existing situation and what the menu of effective, yet feasible, treatments could be,” he said.

Schwartz’s firm and two partner companies will collect about $200,000 for the review project.  The process is expected to take about eight months - and a kickoff meeting is set for later this month.

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