"T" for transit: Decision made on Boise streetcar; inside the push to make it a reality

A streetcar bound for Tijuana pulls into a station in San Diego earlier this month. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev.com

A streetcar bound for Tijuana pulls into a station in San Diego earlier this month. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev.com

Boise's mayor has wanted a streetcar to roll its way through Downtown Boise for a long time. In 2008, he proclaimed in his State of the City address that the city should build one.

The idea never gained traction - and an economic downturn made the pricy project a no-go for years.

This year, Bieter became the longest-serving mayor in Boise history - and he still hopes to make that streetcar happen.

A streetcar is on the verge of becoming a reality, after the outcome of a November meeting. More on that in a moment.

The mayor is spearheading a group that has commissioned an "Alternatives Analysis" project to look into the idea and come up with data to support it.

BoiseDev.com obtained the presentation via a public records request - and dozens of supporting documents, memos and emails along with it.

Lost in much of the coverage is why exactly the mayor is such a strong proponent of a fixed-rail streetcar.

"A streetcar is a special thing," Bieter's spokesperson Mike Journee said in an interview with BoiseDev.com. "It’s something that people recognize and want to be part of and want to ride.  It’s permanent. It provides a strong opportunity for economic development around it - at its stops - and it gives certainty to the development community."

Circulator steering committee
The group formed by Boise's mayor includes participants from:

  • City of Boise
  • Ada County Highway District
  • St. Luke's
  • Idaho Power
  • Gardner Co.
  • Boise State
  • COMPASS
  • Block 22 (Grove Hotel)
  • Conservation Voters of Idaho
  •  
  • Capital City Development Corp
  • Rafanelli & Nahas
  • Carley Co.
  • JR Simplot Co.

The mayor's goal is clear.  Before a meeting of his working group, he sent a memo advocating for the streetcar plan.

"I feel it's important to share that my initial preference for a fixed rail system has not changed," the mayor wrote in a November, 2015 memo to group members, just one week after he won reelection.  

The initial report from consultant Leland Consulting discusses three options - a fixed-rail streetcar, a rubber tire bus, and the option to not do anything.  Though the report doesn't make an affirmative case for any option, which the mayor concedes in his memo, he still thinks rail - by far the most expensive option - is the best way forward.

"There is no clear economic or engineering answer," Bieter wrote. "I believe everything in this process boils down to our vision for this community. In my mind, that means we build a streetcar."

Journee said the mayor has made "no bones" about wanting a streetcar - and says the Alternatives Analysis process is a way to bring others to his way of thinking.

“He recognizes that there has to be support behind that. Not everyone is going to come to (his) conclusion," he said. "Let’s start at very ground zero: what are these options?"

A fixed-rail streetcar would come at the highest price of any option discussed, with funding coming from a variety of possible sources.

The Full Mon-T

The preferred route is what is being termed the "full T" - (see the map at right or above, depending on your device).  It would start and end at the Boise State University Student Union Building, roll up University to Capitol, then loop around Main & Idaho Streets from the KBOI-TV building on the west, and St. Luke's Regional Medical Center to the east.

The report proposes streetcars or buses coming along every 15 minutes which operate from 6am-10pm each day.

Bus circulator

For each idea, the consultant used Federal STOPS data to calculate potential ridership for the line.  The model indicates a bus could generate 740 trips per day, assuming rides are free. By 2040, the number of daily trips could grow to 1,090 according to the estimate.

The costs for the bus amount to the up front capital outlay and monthly operations/maintenance. The report also notes that buses don't last quite as long as streetcars, so they would need to be replaced about twice as soon - though each bus is cheaper than its train counterpart.

The up front construction cost for the bus line is $12.6 million - which would pay for shelters, ramps, signage and the like.  Buses would be purchased for and additional $10.5 million. The service would cost about $2.2 million to operate each year.

$88.6 million
— All-in cost of a bus circulator, based on estimates by Leland Consulting Group

The line could be built and fully operational in one year after getting the green light.

The consultant suggested an electric or hybrid bus - which actually drives up the cost of this option.  In a Q&A with city officials, the consultants said this was because downtown stakeholders said that "if a rubber-tired circulator was selected, there was an expectation that the bus used should have features that make it special and unique."  There is added cost for that special feel.

The "all in" cost to operate the bus service for 25 years, with one set of replacement buses (in 2015 dollars) would be $88.6 million.

Fixed rail circulator

Idaho State Historical Society image of a historic trolley in Downtown Boise near the Borah Post Office. The system was shut down in 1928 as cars made their advance across America.

Idaho State Historical Society image of a historic trolley in Downtown Boise near the Borah Post Office. The system was shut down in 1928 as cars made their advance across America.

Using the same STOPS data, a streetcar is estimated to have higher ridership, with 1,090 trips per day at the outset, again assuming trips are free. By 2040, the number of daily trips could grow to 1,400.

The cost model for the streetcar is similar to the buses - but the more expensive streetcars are estimated to last longer.

The up front cost is $73.1 million in construction - about six times as expensive due to the need for overhead lines, fixed tracks and the like - in addition to the costs of shelters, ramps and signs included in the bus concept. The streetcars themselves would cost $37.8 million.  The line would cost  $3.3 million each year to keep running.

$193.4 million
— All-in cost of a streetcar circulator, based on estimates by Leland Consulting Group

A memo obtained by BoiseDev.com also notes that ongoing operations for trains is more expensive for a number of reasons, including higher expected pay for streetcar drivers and mechanics and higher costs to keep the trains running.

 

Using the same "all in" calculation for this model, 25 years of service would cost $193.4 million.

Comparing the concepts

There is a huge amount of data, but comparing the options side-by-side helps illustrate how they stack up.

The streetcar proposal would cost more than twice as much.

There are two main tangible advantages proponents tout for a streetcar - improvement to property values over time, and eased transportation options for users.

Looking at estimated ridership counts as compared to the cost of the circulator options helps to understand what it would cost per ride,

Over 25 years, using the report's best case numbers - the number of riders in 2040 (after years of promotion and use have potentially helped give the project traction), the bus could see about 13.8 million total rides. The streetcar is projected to see a total of about 18 million total trips.

Here's how that stacks up (BoiseDev.com analysis):

Each time a passenger gets on one of these proposed vehicles, it will have a cost. If a bus line is built, it will run $6.39.  If a rail system is built, it will cost $10.75 per trip.  If passenger counts aren't as robust, those trips will cost even more - since the fixed costs won't necessarily decrease.

A boost to property value?

Leland Consulting Group graphic

Leland Consulting Group graphic

Another touted benefit is the potential for increased property values. Here, the consultant group judged three scenarios - "no build," essentially to do nothing, along with rail and bus. The same 25-year time horizon is used.

What the report doesn't do is judge the increased property value against the cost of the system.  To evaluate the bus and rail ideas, you have to back out the $395 million in expected value increase that would happen naturally if nothing is done. This gives you the full picture of the benefit of each solution.

The bus option is not only cheaper, but is also better at generating an increase in property values per dollar invested.  While rail is projected to boost value $595 million, you would have to subtract  the $395 million that is projected if nothing is done.  This means $200 million is the true property value of the option.  

$6.6 million
— Economic impact of a streetcar over 25 years, after costs are subtracted

When you subtract the costs of $193.4 million - it means a streetcar would generate $6.6 million in property value benefit over 25 years.  That's with best-cast numbers, a thriving system that doesn't fail - and no bumps in the literal road.

Using the same metric for the bus, it is estimated to increase values by $510 million, again offset by natural growth of $395 million.  That means its true value is $115 million. Subtracting the lower costs of the bus route, this option would have a benefit of $26.4 million in value.

The effort to push the streetcar

Bieter has longed pushed the idea of a streetcar forward. During his 2008 State of the City address, the mayor first highlighted the concept.

"Boise needs... a streetcar, one that connects the Depot to the Statehouse and Broadway to the west part of downtown. Councilmember Clegg surprised me earlier this year when she pledged to make it happen within four years – but I think she might be right, and I’m going to do my best to help hit that target.”

The timeframe came and went - largely impacted by the economic recession that swept across the nation.

I think our commitment to an ‘all in’ solution is foundational to future transit investment
— Mayor Dave Bieter in a 2015 memo

Public input was last collected in 2014, according to a page on the city's website. Since then, the working group has been working quietly to form the Alternatives Analysis. 

Bieter's 2015 memo to the steering committee again put his stamp of approval on a streetcar over a bus.

"I felt it was important to share these thoughts with you before our meeting... consider it priming the pump," he wrote. "A streetcar is a permanent investment. I think our commitment to an 'all in' solution is foundational to future transit investment and signals to our residents that we are ahead of the game on this issue."

The meeting, slated for November of 2015, was delayed for nearly a year.

City of Boise project manager Jame Pardy told BoiseDev.com that the delay gave the mayor time to press the flesh.

"The mayor went out and did a lot of work with potential stakeholders," he said. "(There are) a lot of busy folks, and it’s hard to schedule."

Gardner Co. COO Tommy Ahlquist & Boise Mayor Dave Bieter prepare to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014. Photo: City of Boise via YouTube

Gardner Co. COO Tommy Ahlquist & Boise Mayor Dave Bieter prepare to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014. Photo: City of Boise via YouTube

After the behind-the-scenes work, the steering committee finally gathered in November of 2016. Bieter again worked to steer the steering committee.

Two days before the meeting, Pardy emailed Gardner Co. COO Dr. Tommy Ahlquist with a request: make a motion to reccomend a fixed rail streetcar.

"Mayor Bieter asked that we send over a potential motion/recommendation that could be used at the steering committee," Pardy wrote. 

The wording of that suggested motion had a primary goal: streetcar.

"I would recommend that the Boise City Council adopt as a locally preferred alternative the “T-route” to be serviced by a streetcar."

When asked about this email exchange, Pardy said it was to "get the conversation going."

“Dr. Ahlquist is a supporter of transit in the area," he said. "The idea was to have someone step up... It was the way to put something on the table so the steering committee could have a discussion,” he said.

 

How to fund the project

Finding the dollars for any project - for the somewhat-modest bus concept, or the more ambitious streetcar - could be the most arduous task.

"We would expect more funding opportunity from the federal government on a more expensive system," Pardy said. "Their contribution would be more on a more expensive system."

"There will be a local cost. What that local cost is, we don’t know that yet," Journee added.

So how do you find that local funding? Leland lays out a number of ideas.

  • Local Improvement District
    • A "LID" would be a tax on property owners in the area of the circulator. The tax could vary depending on land value or proximity to the tracks. A LID is allowed by Idaho law, and could be formed by a simple majority vote of Boise City Council.
    • Properties like St. Luke's Boise campus, Boise State University and the Boise Centre would be exempt from the tax, just as they are from property taxes.
    • This could raise $12-14 million.
  • Parking Revenue
    • Should more downtown parking spaces have meters? If the recommendation by Leland comes to pass, another 750 parking spots could require payment to use across downtown - an increase of nearly 60%. Each meter could go up from a buck an hour to $1.25 per hour. Making those changes could generate about $800,000 in new revenue from the pockets of downtown visitors. This money could be used for maintenance, or could be bonded against to raise $8.1 million in capital.
  • Tax Increment Financing
    • TIF is the method used by the Capital City Development Corp. to raise funds for parking garages, sidewalks, development incentives and the like.  The Leland report indicates current CCDC funding could be funneled toward a streetcar.  CCDC expects to take in $65 million in tax dollars over ten years - and if 8-11% of these funds went to the circulator, it could gin up $5-$7 million.
  • Boise State University students
    • Leland notes that Boise State has about 23,000 students and plans to expand.  Those college students could be a way to raise money for a bus or streetcar.  The firm suggests adding a "mandatory added fee" of about $15 one every student each year.  Since the circulator is likely to be "free to ride," students could help subsidize the project, Leland concludes.
    • This could raise $300,000
  • Major institutions
    • Here again, BSU is looked at as a funding source.  Since it's a "key destination and ridership generator," the school could be asked to pay. It's unclear how these funds would be raised with tight budgets at the state taxpayer-funded institution.
    • St Luke's is "a promising and logical source of potential funding contribution. SLHS is not subject to any potential LID funds, as a non-profit.
    • Simplot is also listed "potential donor," though it is unclear if the family - or company bearing their name - is the target.
    • This mode could generate $2-$7 million.
  • Naming rights, sponsorships & advertising
    • Here again, Boise State is named - with the idea for a "Bronco-themed" car design.
    • This could bring $550,000 in annual revenue.
  • Municipal funding
    • Some cash could come straight from the City of Boise. Leland notes the City puts $8 million each year into Valley Regional Transit for bus services - and says a "TBD" amount of taxpayer dollars could go to a circulator

Where do we go from here?

San Diego trolley in December. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev.com

San Diego trolley in December. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev.com

At a closed-door meeting with the committee this fall, the group decided that not building anything was a "no go," and decided the "full T" route option made sense.  They group decided a "fixed route circulator" was the way to go. Pardy said the final version is not yet decided - it could include a dedicated lane for a bus, a rail streetcar, or some other idea. The team also noted that citizen input and availability of funds would be key. 

"We have to put these puzzle pieces together. That is what this process is about. What are our options. What makes sense based on outcomes, and what we can afford."

Pardy likens this to the Boise River Greenbelt system.

"What you want downtown to look like? At one point someone had the vision to build the Greenbelt, same thing with the foothills," he said.

"There’s also a practical side of this. What is our traffic situation going to look like in 2040?," Journee added.

The group hasn't yet decided on a funding mechanism.  The city would likely work to secure Federal Transit Administration funds first - which could start as early as 2018 - with project development activities in 2018 and 2019.

"Public outreach" is scheduled for this winter according to a November memo obtained by BoiseDev.com. A plan would then go to the Boise City Council - possibly as soon as this spring.

Editor's note: I've long been curious about the tax impacts of a fixed-rail streetcar, which is what prompted me to explore this topic in great depth and detail.

Correction: Hy Kloc was listed as committee member, but he is serving in his capacity as an Idaho State legislator, but not as a board member of the Greater Boise Auditorium District. GBAD is not a party to the committee as earlier reported in a list.

By Don Day

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