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Analysis: Cold war: Boise heats up battle with ACHD over snowstorm

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 Pretty - oh so pretty... annoying. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev.com
Pretty – oh so pretty… annoying. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev.com

News analysis by Don Day
BoiseDev.com

On Friday, Boise’s mayor stepped up his attacks on the Ada County Highway District – the agency responsible for roads in his city, and every city and unincorporated part of Idaho’s most populous county.

In an editorial on IdahoStatesman.com, and in media interviews – Mayor Dave Bieter went hard after ACHD, using phrases like “poor service,” “threat to public  safety,” and “doomed to fail.” 

The highway district was quick to respond, with ACHD commissioner Kent Goldthorpe responding in the Statesman’s comments section: “Heeeeear we go again. Like a rusty clock and chiming in just as expected we hear it all over again.”

The mayor and the highway district have been tussling for years – but the issue at hand isn’t snow removal.  As Bieter concedes, and ACHD notes – the series of storms was the most punishing SW Idaho has seen in years. The National Weather Services says it is the snowiest period since it began keeping records 124 years ago.

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ACHD’s long-standing policy for the county’s roads is to tackle main thoroughfares, collector streets and steep spots (like the Boise foothills) – but to not venture into neighborhoods.

This policy makes residents antsy, and leads to an impression that ACHD doesn’t plow at all (I first wrote about this back in 2009 when at KTVB).

During this storm cycle, the snow first started pelting the area shortly before Christmas on December 22nd. ACHD followed its policy and within the few days nearing Santa’s arrival, the major roads were in pretty good shape. But neighborhoods across the area were tough sledding (somewhat literally).  Personally, I had to get new tires on my vehicle to drive to my girlfriend’s home in SE Boise. Not a way to engender a feeling of goodwill for the road department – and I wasn’t alone.

On December 29th, ACHD went public with a perplexing strategy: residents can band together and hire contractors, at their own expense, to plow the roads by their homes.  But they had to get a permit first of course. ACHD worked hard to appear magnanimous by waving the fee for that permit.

The plan didn’t meet with a chorus of approval.

When another storm on January 3rd cranked up and nearly doubled the snow on the ground – and started prompting the longest stretch of school closures in the history of the Boise School District, the political pressure peaked – and tactics changed.

First, the City of Boise issued a January 5th news release that noted it was going to use what resources it had to help out. The release focused mainly on the downtown core – but also said they’d shovel sidewalks along transit corridors across the city.  Meridian followed suit that same night.

While Boise swung into action downtown and in other areas – sidewalks adjacent to some city facilities, including several parks – hadn’t yet been cleared.  City code requires all sidewalks to be cleared by 9am each day – a rule that generally isn’t enforced unless a complaint is received, if at all. I snapped a picture on January 6th of ParkCenter Park, with the sidewalk not yet cleared from the January 3 snowfall. 

With those school closures adding up, and emergency declarations from cities  – ACHD changed course, and teamed with ITD to help get residential routes plowed.

Once the storm was mostly over, the city decided to use any political capital it had built up in its storm assistance in its long-standing battle with the highway district.

I asked folks on Twitter what they thought:

Bieter’s qualms with the district are many and longstanding. They battled over parking meter sensors downtown. They clashed over a bike lane trial downtown. They went tit-for-tat over impact fees for a potential east end restaurant. 

This fall, Bieter ally and former city councilor David Eberle ran against Rebecca Arnold – and lost. A swap of Arnold for Eberle may have changed the voting order on ACHD in the City of Boise’s favor.

ACHD was formed by a vote of the people in 1971. You can read ACHD’s take on the “why” here.

While the district takes autonomy away from each city – it also helps cut down on duplication of services. If, for instance, each city had its own road district – and the county kept one for the unincorporated parts of our area, you’d need an extra layer of administrators, engineers, facilities and equipment for each unit.  This could cost taxpayers more.  Witness the Boise and Meridian fire departments — each with a spendy new fire training center just a few miles apart.  Governments like to have facilities they own – and often don’t take a shine to sharing.

The storm was severe, and missteps were made by ACHD – it’s a pretty rare confluence of events. Boise officials want control of the roads to further projects like streetcars, bike lanes and revamping thoroughfares

ALSO READ: Inside Boise’s push for a streetcar project

As I told the mayor’s spokesperson last year – I tend to personally like some friction in government. It might kick up the dust, but can help breed compromise.  

As Idaho’s dean of political study Dr. Jim Weatherby said to me last year – each part of government likes “the power to be where they sit.”  It’s easier and more straightforward to push ideas along without the need to consult other agencies – but compromise and cooperation can bring about better solutions.  

In the case of this storm, ACHD, ITD and the cities of the county banding together did exactly that – even if it was slower than many residents might have appreciated. 

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Don Day
Don is the founder and editor of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow.

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