Developer and others: Boise Circulator should skip rail and go driverless

Autonomous electric bus, Courtesy Protera.

Autonomous electric bus, Courtesy Protera.

Should Boise invest in a transportation mode out of the past - or look to the future for options? It’s a question being asked by members of the City’s Circulator Analysis steering committee.

BoiseDev.com reached out to each member of the group in May for comment on the process — and of those who replied, a recurring theme emerged: the need to investigate a driverless bus system.

Just a few years ago, such an idea might have seemed futuristic and farcical - but it’s a concept that is growing in traction.

In Helsinki Finland, the RoboBusLine has been promoted from trial to full-time service.  The electric-powered vehicles carry folks along a fixed route - traveling at about 7 miles per hour.  For now, each bus has a driver on board in case of emergencies - but that could change over time.  

This 3D printed bus is known as Olli, and is already on the streets of Washington, DC. Photo courtesy Local Motors.

This 3D printed bus is known as Olli, and is already on the streets of Washington, DC. Photo courtesy Local Motors.

In Washington, DC - two futuristic technologies have come together - with a driverless 3D-printed bus roaming the streets. Olli, as it is called, has places for twelve people and is built by Arizona-based Local Motors. Unlike the fixed-route example in Finland, Olli can be summoned with an app much like Uber.

Just across Idaho’s southern border, Reno is testing a fleet of electric driverless buses from a company known as Proterra. These buses look similar to traditional human-driven coaches, and for now will still have a driver in place as backup.  They can travel 600 miles on a charge - and can hold dozens of passengers.

If Helsinki, Washington and even Reno can do it — why not Boise?

Prominent Downtown Boise developer Clay Carley raised the concept to BoiseDev.

“Autonomous vehicles are sexy and inviting,” Carley said. “They have very low initial cost and low cost to operate and maintain.”

Carley notes that such systems aren’t quite ready for primetime, but could be ready to in the three to five-year timeframe that Boise will need to attain funding.

The current idea bouncing around the City of Boise would rely at least in part on overhead catenary systems — basically wires hanging over a rail route, snaking along the street where the streetcar might travel.

Carley says he’s not in favor of such a system.

“If we choose that path, by the time we get done it would be an antiquated system,” he said. “I’m not for that, I think it would be a mistake.”

He says an autonomous bus concept would have lower initial cost and lower ongoing cost than a spendy train concept.  

If it is $120 million for a rail system, I would vote no - and I would rally other business owners to vote no
— Clay Carley, Boise developer

Carley owns a number of properties along the proposed circulator line - including The Owyhee, many of the buildings in Old Boise and others.  If a local improvement district is established to help pay for the system - business owners like Carley will be called upon to pay for it.

“If it is $120 million for a rail system, I would vote no - and I would rally other business owners to vote no,” he said. “That affordability factor is crucial - and I don’t see it happening with a rail car the way it’s happening thus far.”

He says that such a system would need a sense of permanency - with stations, stops and possibly even a contract.

Carley's The Owyhee sits on a proposed Boise circulator route. One funding option mentioned by the City of Boise is a local improvement district, which would assess an extra tax for properties on the line like this one. Photo courtesy The Owyhee.

Carley's The Owyhee sits on a proposed Boise circulator route. One funding option mentioned by the City of Boise is a local improvement district, which would assess an extra tax for properties on the line like this one. Photo courtesy The Owyhee.

“I’m a property owner that would be on the route and I’d be more inclined to develop if an autonomous vehicle was going up and down that route for a contract 20 years.”

Architect Gregory Kaslo, who was also on the Circulator steering committee, brought up the self-driving idea last year as well.

“This is a perfect transportation ‘problem’ begging for a self-driving shuttle solution,” he wrote.  “If established, the feedback loop of fixed route, fixed stops and predictable demand would help the design of a responsive economical transportation network.”

ACHD Commissioner Sara Baker thinks that an autonomous bus route should be given more thought.

“It's an intriguing concept and one that should be explored in depth,” she said. “In the interim, partnering with BSU and their shuttle is a good way to go.”

The Boise State Shuttle has two routes during the school year which run every fifteen minutes between campus and downtown. Photo courtesy Boise State.  

The Boise State Shuttle has two routes during the school year which run every fifteen minutes between campus and downtown. Photo courtesy Boise State.  

The Boise State shuttle runs frequently from the campus to stops near Bodo and at City Center Plaza on Main St. - and is often packed with students.  The project is paid for out of student fees.

“The BSU shuttle, which runs on much the same route (as the circulator), is available to anyone, not just BSU students, and it runs frequently throughout the day,” Baker said. “If the circulator concept is the end goal, then the city should investigate partnering with BSU rather than reinventing the wheel.”

Baker said she felt the City’s end goal is a fixed-rail streetcar, but emphasized that the steering group didn’t actually endorse it.

“I think it was obvious the goal on the part of the city was a fixed streetcar,” she said. “Rather, the route was endorsed but mode of transit was left open as was the need for the public's approval.”

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In the material put in front of Boise City Council before a vote on the circulator proposal last month, city staff emphasized an older focus group from 2014.  That group was a pre-selected batch of decision makers, and 54% favored rail.  The agenda packet provided to Boise City Council before its decision did not include the result of a more recent March Open House on the circulator which showed public opinion is mixed on mode between bus and rail according to documents obtained via a public records request by BoiseDev.  At least one media story also showed a different survey, making support for rail seem more robust than the most recent feedback opportunity showed.

Baker’s ACHD colleague Jim Hansen hopes that some type of solution can be brought into reality - though he didn’t advocate a specific idea in an interview by email. 

“Urban areas that offer real transportation choices are better positioned to meet market demands in the future,” he said. “If we don’t invest in those choices today, we end up building more and more limited mode infrastructure that does not trigger private investment and ends up costing future taxpayers too much to maintain. 

He also criticized his own agency.

“The challenge in our area is that the one local government entity in Ada County that is empowered to invest property taxes in transportation (ACHD) has chosen not to invest very much in transportation choices.”

I think it was obvious the goal on the part of the city was a fixed streetcar
— Sara Baker, ACHD Commisioner

Local entrepreneur Jeff Reynolds works downtown and recently purchased a home near the city center.  He also thinks Boise would be well-served to look at autonomous bus solutions to the downtown transportation challenge.

“The City seems to only be seriously considering a rail-based system, even as we sit on the precipice an autonomous vehicle revolution,” Reynolds said. “Instead of rail, the City should seriously consider an autonomous vehicle circulator — dedicated lanes that allow self-driving buses and cars to move swiftly through downtown and beyond."

Carley agrees.

“I think there’s a better solution on the horizon and we just can’t see it yet,” he said. “It has to be affordable, and it has to be fixed, and it has to be smart, and I don’t think rail is in the ground is very smart.”

While Boise Mayor Dave Bieter told the circulator committee that his “preference is for a fixed rail system," his spokesperson said he is open to the role autonomous vehicles could play in Boise’s transit system  

“The mayor and others involved in developing TAP (Transportation Action Plan) have been thinking about autonomous vehicles and their place in the mix,” City of Boise spokesperson Mike Journee said.

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