News analysis by Don Day
BoiseDev.com

Comments are enabled at the bottom if you’d like to chip in your thoughts

I’m not a transportation planner. It’s hard work, complicated – and a surefire way to have people question your ideas.

But, like any citizen who pays attention, I have some ideas.

Boise’s city leaders have been working on a streetcar idea for nearly a decade. The response from citizens has been, for the most part, tepid. But the idea remains.

In my long piece on the streetcar late last year, the mayor’s spokesperson made a point that has stuck with me.

“There’s a practical side of this,” Mike Journee said. “What is our traffic situation going to look like in 2040?”

I lived in Seattle for just long enough to understand what traffic is. Sitting, not moving, wishing-you-had-a-bathroom-in-your-car traffic.

Boise, of course, doesn’t really have much traffic.  Sure, the Interstate chokes up with accidents and can be slow in the average commute.  Front Street through downtown is a slow, cloggy mess many evenings. Leaving a Boise State game can be slow.

On the whole, however – it’s pretty easy to get around.

But what about in 2040?

Downtown isn’t really a problem child for traffic.  You can pretty easily jaywalk any of the streets most of the day and evening (not that anyone I know does that). 

The streetcar is expensive. Really, really expensive.  After my story was published, a local elected official told me off the record that it would “never happen,” and dismissed the project as folly.  

As I talked with Journee and streetcar project manager Jim Pardy, I told them they lay out a convincing case. And for the most part, they do. But it’s very hard to get past the cost, and the relative lack of need for a train that goes in a fairly walkable circle.

Boise’s buses, on the other hand, currently are underused.  They don’t run on Sundays, holidays, or even very late into the evening.  The streetcar would run more frequently if built, but it would be a strong link in a weak bus system. If I live anywhere but downtown and don’t own a car, I’m going to be stuck without an option other than my own two feet and their ability to walk or peddle a bike.

COMPASS even somewhat-confusingly touted a stat that points out the problem: 80% of Treasure Valley residents aren’t within walking distance of a bus.

I asked the City of Boise pair why a streetcar and not the “Micron to Caldwell” rail line. 

“We are kind of doing it backwards,” Pardy said candidly. “This is kind of like building the last mile first.  This could be a catalyst to get the entire region.”

Twenty years ago, then-mayor Brent Coles spearheaded a trial of a train from Micron to Caldwell on those existing Union Pacific tracks. Temporary stations were set up, and people could ride the rails to commute.  

Why not do this now? Start here and connect from it.  The Boise Depot is the historic icon of transit in SW Idaho – and it still stands in a pivotal position.

Imagine this idea:

  • Use the existing Union Pacific tracks (GREEN) to run commuter trains between the Boise Factory Outlet area near Micron and Caldwell.  Some additional infrastructure would be needed – stops, park-and-ride lots and the like. You could have stops at the Boise Towne Square, a few blocks from Saint Alphonsus, near St Luke’s Meridian, Downtown Meridian, the Idaho Center, Downtown Nampa and Downtown Caldwell. And of course the Boise Depot.  The existing UP track run right through the backyard of many of our area’s biggest hubs.
  • Build a streetcar or bus circulator between the Boise Depot and the Idaho Statehouse (RED). It would pass by Boise State, the new multi-modal transit center, city hall, City Center Plaza and within a few easy walking blocks of Simplot, JUMP, Zions Bank and dozens of other buildings. It would give the city the downtown catalyst project and accomplish most of the streetcar project, but would be knitted into a larger system.
  • Existing talks are underway to do something along State Street.  Maybe those talks should produce a high-frequency bus route that comes around every 10-15 minutes and goes from the end of that new streetcar line at the Idaho Statehouse, out to Eagle Rd. and meets back up with the UP tracks near St. Luke’s Meridian (BLUE).  The route could also go east from the Statehouse and zip by St. Luke’s Boise, up Broadway by Albertsons Stadium and connect to the transit center at Boise State.
  • Take that same idea and connect a high-frequency bus route from the Boise Airport to the Boise Depot.

With a fleet of buses, passenger trains, and vision – you could put together a dynamic, thriving system that connects nearly every big thing in the valley.  The hospitals, the arenas, the major employers, the mall, the Village at Meridian, the airport and more.

Bring it all together under a common, smart brand and you have a uniting concept.

I also asked about how the city viewed driverless cars. It doesn’t seem like this is something that is in their calculation – but it could change everything. (Why own a car at all when you can push a button and a robot can pick you up with a minute or two?)

As I reported in my streetcar deep dive, Bieter said choosing a rail-focused system over buses came down to one thing. 

“I believe everything in this process boils down to our vision for this community. In my mind, that means we build a streetcar.”

Pardy likened the streetcar to a loved Boise treasure. 

“At one point someone had the vision to build the Greenbelt,” he said.

The mayor has his vision, and he has every right to work on it as he sees fit – he’s been elected to his spot three times, and we live in a representative democracy.

But maybe a different vision could make sense.  The great thing about the Boise River Greenbelt example is that it runs from Lucky Peak to beyond Eagle – and is a source of pride for everyone regardless of which city they call home.  Any transit system should have a similar Big Idea with an eye on 2040 – and serve as many people as possible.

11 COMMENTS

  1. I like this plan. One item not mentioned but I think you have it covered is that most people are willing to make one change-over (i.e. from bus-bus, or train-bus). Once they have to do more than one, taking into account the waiting, driving will almost always be a better option. The idea of running it west out to Caldwell is also interesting, though I think once it get’s past Idaho Center it might need to stay close to I-84 otherwise Nampa and Caldwell would have to create bus systems to feed the trains. If there is a streetcar, maybe have it be a circular from the depot, through BSU and downtown, and back to the depot.

  2. Being in heavy construction for many years I understand cost and feasibility very well, We need to look beyond Boise and consider the valley as a metropolitan area. We will see continued growth and continued demand on our existing roads will far exceed their current status. The long term solutions would be to acquire developed land and run new roads or expand existing roads, in any case it will be very expensive,and not address 2 of our other growing concerns,,Air quality and restricted growth in the downtown area as parking will be come a bigger issue requiring more space! my suggestion has been to look at a light rail system,the initial cost will be high,but it has several advantages. We could route an elevated twin rail thru existing corridors such as State St. Fairview or the Interstate then make the loop to include Nampa and Caldwell. at each city we could construct parking structures with easy access to commercial districts for shopping and recreation,some of the advantages beyond reducing commuter traffic,air pollution and congestion in downtown Boise, most of what it would take to build the trains and the system could be built by Idaho companies, bringing a lot of work to our state. As our community grows unlike our system of roads a light rail is an expandable system, you can add a car or train as needed, we could also incorporate the utilities into the same structure thus eliminating the telephone and light poles along side those thoroughfares! And as a final note,after all the work we have done to beautify our river,greenbelt and foothill pathways,the light rail would be an attractive addition to our view and keep our air clean so we can enjoy all of our outdoor amenities!

  3. Yeah, it would be great to build light rail and a more robust bus system. The forward-thinking people in Boise know and want it. The problem is, everyone else in the Valley (and Idaho, who is going to have to start contributing SOMETHING to public transit) is too cheap to even consider it.

    They can’t get it through their tiny heads that a system like this takes YEARS to build. So of course congestion might not be a problem now, but it might be in 20 years when the build-out to Caldwell is done. I grew up in Boise, and people come here because it is cheap to live, not because of the public amenities that it provides.

    We couldn’t even pass a bond for the community college in Nampa, for Christ’s sake. Ada county voted for a school in Nampa, but Canyon County, where the 2 health sciences building would be built, voted against it. Ada County is saying, "this Valley needs a workforce training center" and Canyon says "don’t tread on me".

    The same thing is happening with public transportation. Boise, by far the biggest generator of taxes, parcel for parcel, is willing to pay if ANYONE else would be interested.

    That’s why Boise is biting off a chunk of the project it can chew. Because no one else in the Valley or the state wants to play. If you think that what Boise is proposing is a waste of money, sell your house in Boise and move out to the far side of Nampa. Lower Taxes! (oh but your car will need new tires every year because of all the potholes).

    I agree, we need to see the Valley as a metro area. What that means is that the Valley and the slow, ignorant beast that is the state of Idaho needs to see the Valley as a metropolitan area, step up, and treat it as such. Instead we argue about where the money will come from to fix the potholes.

    • Hey Ethan,

      I agree that many of our regional challenges stem from an unwillingness of the residents in suburban areas to recognize that they are living in metro area, let alone pay the taxes required to fund infrastructure or services. This difference in perception is very apparent in the struggles between ACHD and the city of Boise.

      That said, I think there are some practical things that the City of Boise and ValleyRide could be doing to promote public transportation and alleviate concerns about costs.

      I believe the city should be focused on the concept of a circulator not the method of transportation. There is obvious pushback to a streetcar to a downtown, but the city could start the program using buses for a much lower cost. This would also give them the flexibility to change the path over time and optimize ridership. Once the circulator has proven itself popular, the city could revisit making it permanent using a streetcar.

      I also think ValleyRide should investigate reducing the number of bus routes, but increasing the frequency and hours. I think this would likely reduce ridership in the near term, but may make the routs that remain a more reliable form of transportation. Once more people begin to use the bus system as a primary mode of transportation ridership should increase and then routes could be expanded.

  4. Why do I care about a downtown circulator when thousands of homes in Southeast Boise don’t even have a bus route that would take them there?

  5. I lived in Connecticut and communted into Hartford every day for years. It was always hard to find the very few parking spaces and it was expensive if I drove. Thankfully they had a wonderful bus system of remote parking lots, up to 25 miles from the city, where you could leave your car and hop on a commuter bus. Monthly passes were very affordable. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people used that system. I had to drive a few miles to the bus stop in the morning to leave my car but the bus dropped me off very close to my work and was waiting in the same place when it was time to go home.

    Living in Boise for over 20 years I have needed my car during the day for work. But since retiring I have been using the bus more and more. They are rarely crowded, very affordable, have very nice considerate drivers, and really should be used more. If they ran later in the evening or more on weekends I would begin to think of ditching my car.

    I think expanding the bus system would be the best way to go instead of building a streetcar. I like the author’s idea of integrating bus and light rail into a real system.

  6. I love the idea of having transit using the rail system. Making it easier to commute from Mountain Home to Caldwell opens up a world of opportunities for those who choose to ride versus drive. This would also make less of an impact on the freeways.

  7. In 2040, the Uber/Google/Tesla driverless car will be in its 4th or 5th generation and will likely have evolved into something we can hardly imagine. In the meantime, instead of investing in a multi-billion-dollar bus and/or fixed-rail system (if the legislature ever allows a local option funding source for it), it might be cheaper & more efficient to subsidize individual & small-group Uber or Lyft rides.

    The Treasure Valley’s are some of the most sparsely sprawled cities in the country. Running a system of buses within walking distance and frequently enough that people would actually ride them is much more expensive per capita here than in most other urban areas.

    Uber-like communication/information technologies may be developed to operate systems of driverless vans or small buses sent out on higher-demand routes designed to meet real-time ride requests.

    Currently, labor costs are the biggest chunk of operating any mass transit system. Almost all public transit systems are subsidized. So, do we wanna pay for bus drivers or Uber/Lyft drivers in the brief time before neither will be needed?

Comments are closed.