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Leaders hope massive expansion could increase bus usage 800%

ICCU Idaho
  • Plan would revamp system across Ada & Canyon counties.
  • Feedback sought from public on concepts.
  • Funding an open question

The Boise area is booming. Crazy, faster-than-anywhere-else booming.

BoiseDev Project Tracker

  • Downtown Circulator (Streetcar)

    Click here for details, information & past stories

But transit service in the metro area is, to put it mildly – wanting.

If you’d like to get around without a car, your options are essentially your feet, a bike (as long snow isn’t piled up in the bike lanes) or a limited bus system that doesn’t run frequently enough for the tastes of many.

A ValleyRide bus turns on the Main Street in Boise last summer. If Valley Regional Transit authorities get their way, many more buses will roll down local streets.

But the area’s transit authority, Valley Regional Transit, wants to solve it.

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Future of Downtown

The road ahead for the bus system could be complicated though.

VRT is asking for public feedback through March 15th on ValleyConnect 2.0 – a set of ambitious ideas to revamp and remake public transit in Ada and Canyon Counties.

“(One thing) we are trying to do with this plan is be more intentional about promoting transit as a vehicle toward freedom of movement.  So there is a kind of ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality,” VRT Principal Planner Stephen Hunt told BoiseDev. “The underlying core is helping people get to more places in less time at lower cost. ”

The plan lays out three scenarios – do nothing, implement an intermediate plan or tackle the growth.

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Bigger than a streetcar. A vision for transit in 2040

Where we stand

Presently, VRT spends about $10 million per year for its bus operations around the area. It spends $15 million on capital costs and improvements.

That money gets the public a somewhat-limited set of bus routes that don’t operate on Sunday, don’t run much past 7 p.m. and leave large swaths of land without easy access to a bus route.

Ridership is also declining.

“If you take all our services in aggregate number – there has been a slight drop over the last several years,” Hunt said.  The ridership dips follow a national pattern of declines in fixed-line service.

ValleyRide ridership

Data via Valley Regional Transit

The number of people using the bus in Ada County has been increasing however, with declines in less dense Canyon County bringing usage down on the whole.

 VRT ridership compared to average gas prices. Data provided by VRT VRT ridership compared to average gas prices. Data provided by VRT

VRT community relations manager Mark Carnopis attributes the ridership figures to a cyclical pattern with gas prices. When the pain at the pump increases, more people hoof it to the bus. When prices decline – folks opt for their cars.

But Carnopis and Hunt note the cost of using a private vehicle can add up.

VRT number crunchers say the average Treasure Valley household spends $6,400 per year on their car or cars – for things like gas, taxes and insurance (not including the car itself). Over a year, that adds up to $1.5 billion per year at scale.

“If you ask someone who is used to driving around to use transit, they are going to experience this loss of 99% of their freedom,” Carnopis said. “But – transit doesn’t come early enough, late enough, often enough on the weekend.  It’s all limited because of transit operation spending.”

 Map shows current network. Via Valley Regional Transit. Click to enlarge. Map shows current network. Via Valley Regional Transit. Click to enlarge.

Where VRT hopes to go

If the numbers hold true and $1.5 billion is coming from consumers’ pockets to use their car – VRT hopes folks will see proposed plans to expand bus system as affordable in comparison.

And the goal that goes along with the plan is big.

“Our target is to increase ridership 800% – that’s kind of a big number,” Hunt said.

With as much as a 400% increase in service, an 800% increase in usage would in theory make each dollar more efficient than the current set up.

Two proposals are outlined in ValleyConnect 2.0.

Intermediate

The first would double the current operating cost to $20 million per year. That would in turn amp up service hours – also doubling to 200,000 per year.  The scenario would pour $98 million into capital costs, which includes taking care of $23 million in deferred projects.

Here’s what the extra cash would buy:

  • Increased service
    • All-day frequency to every 15 minutes on major transit corridors
    • Run all routes until 8 p.m., with “many past 9 p.m.” on weekdays
    • Increase Saturday service from four routes to six
  • Expand fleet of buses and build up infrastructure
  • Focus on 40 miles of “premium high-frequency” corridors.
  • Upgrade passenger amenities
    • New or expanded transit centers, park & ride lots and “real-time passenger information.”
  • Invest in tech to help coordinate specialized transportation – like vanpool, carpool, bike-share, parking and buses.

 Map shows proposed Intermediate network. Via Valley Regional Transit. Click to enlarge. Map shows proposed Intermediate network. Via Valley Regional Transit. Click to enlarge.

Growth

This plan is even more aggressive. It would quadruple current spending to $40 million, which would also quadruple the number of service hours to 400,000.  It would put in $191 million in capital upgrades.

For the growth plan, here’s what the dollars would fund:

  • Increased service
    • All-day frequency to every 15 minutes “expansive transit network”
    • Add connections through Meridian and central part of two-county region
    • New inter-county connections to Boise Airport and Micron Technology campus
    • Run all service until 9 p.m. with most service until 10 p.m. weekdays
    • Increase Saturday service from four routes to 11.
    • Add first-ever Sunday service on eight routes.
  • Expand fleet of buses and build up infrastructure
  • Focus on 100 miles of “premium high-frequency” corridors.
  • Upgrade passenger amenities
    • New or expanded transit centers, park & ride lots and “real-time passenger information.”

“The intermediate and growth scenarios are aggressive plans for growth that will dramatically improve transit service by connecting more people to more places, more often,” report authors wrote.

 Map shows proposed Growth network. Via Valley Regional Transit. Click to enlarge. Map shows proposed Growth network. Via Valley Regional Transit. Click to enlarge.

Big rail, small rail

 A RegioSprinter train like this one rolled down the tracks of the Treasure Valley as a test in 1997 for ten days. Photo via Alupus   A RegioSprinter train like this one rolled down the tracks of the Treasure Valley as a test in 1997 for ten days. Photo via Alupus

In 1997, then-Boise Mayor Brent Coles spearheaded an effort to consider rail in the transit mix for the Valley.  A ten-day trial brought passenger rail service from the Boise Depot with Idaho Center, with stops at the Boise Towne Square and elsewhere. More than 18,000 residents hopped aboard for the test. But the plan went nowhere and has not been a visible priority for Coles’ eventual successor David Bieter – with a decade-long push for a downtown Boise circulator taking precedence.

ValleyConnect does not specifically plan for use of the existing rail line that runs in the population center from Micron on the east through Nampa in the west, but does advocate building a system that orients to the possibility of using the rail line for passenger trains at some point in the future.

The Growth plan would put about 45,000 hours of service along I-84. If leaders instituted a rail service, those buses could be redirected off the freeway, providing even more service in neighborhoods.

 Rendering of possible Boise circulator. Courtesy City of Boise. Rendering of possible Boise circulator. Courtesy City of Boise.

The plan doesn’t, however, mention the idea from City of Boise leaders to build a $100-million streetcar that covers Downtown Boise and Boise State University.

“The Circulator is a City of Boise project,” Hunt said. “That is something the city is pursuing on its own.”

With VRT working to tie all forms of non-car transit together, would it make sense to be involved in the Circulator plan?

“The ball is in their (City of Boise’s) court for that,” Carnopis said. “We are available and we could talk. We would be happy to help them on that.”

The estimated cost to build a streetcar in Downtown Boise is $73.4 million according to an analysis from Leland Consulting. That compares to a $98 million capital investment for VRT’s “Intermediate” concept which would operate across both counties.

Where will the cash come from?

Donald Trump won Ada County by nine points.

He took Canyon County by nearly 23 points.

Across Idaho, he won by 31 points.

“There is little reason to believe that negative legislative attitudes… will change any time soon”

— Dr. Jim Weatherby

While the metro area may be becoming increasingly progressive – and though Boise has a democratic mayor and several democratic representatives in the state legislature, the state as a whole is still very conservative.

Any group that proposes to spend more than $200 million in public money is going to face an uphill battle.

“We felt that it was important to lead with the public on an aspirational plan on what this could mean for the Valley,” Hunt said. “There’s been a pretty consistent effort to get funding authority.”

The idea to put forth a local option tax is one Treasure Valley leaders have been hoping for for quite some time. But longtime Idaho political analyst Dr. Jim Weatherby says this path isn’t easy.

“There is little reason to believe that negative legislative attitudes toward a feared patchwork of new local taxes and rural hostility toward granting local option to Idaho’s larger cities will change any time soon,” Weatherby said.

He notes that proposals have popped up for more than 40 years in the legislature – and outside of some exemptions for resort cities and auditorium districts, local option taxes haven’t been a popular notion with legislators.

Carnopis says his agency just wants the ability to let voters decide.

“Give us the ability to take a referendum to the people, through our role to educate,” he said. “We are not asking for taxation without representation”

“A vision without a plan is just a dream,” Hunt said. “A plan without funding is hallucination.”

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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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