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Light rail from Caldwell to Boise? It’s a steep climb

The idea of hopping on a train or rapid transit bus in Caldwell and riding all the way to Boise has long been a dream in the Treasure Valley.

But, what would it take to make it a reality?

Local planning officials at the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, known as COMPASS, have been studying the possibility for over a decade. A newly updated study completed by consulting firm AECOM outlines eleven different possibilities for high capacity public transit to move people from Canyon County into downtown Boise.

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The options studied four different modes of high capacity transportation, which is faster than a traditional bus, on four different east to west routes through the region. The study examined each route for ridership, cost and other factors to see its viability.

Study author, AECOM Vice President Bob Post, said the goal of the light rail would be to support a bus system, not replace it.

“It’s not assuming local bus service goes away or that it’s not an important component,” he said, presenting the study to over 100 attendees over Zoom Tuesday afternoon.

Eleven possibilities

The transit types studied include two types of bus rapid transit, light rail and a commuter rail system. Bus rapid transit is a bus system where buses usually travel in dedicated lanes, use raised platforms with ticket booths like a train and stop less frequently than a typical neighborhood bus. The first type of BRT system would have the buses traveling in lanes mixing with cars and the second would have the buses traveling in exclusive lanes.

Light rail is a system of electric powered trains traveling on their own exclusive tracks with stops between half a mile and one mile apart. Commuter rail, the faster option, has stops roughly between 3 and five miles apart and uses existing freight railroad tracks to travel.

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The four routes AECOM explored include traveling along Cherry Lane and Fairview Avenue and Franklin Road for light rail and both forms of BRT. The third option was a BRT system, either with or without exclusive lanes, running along I-84 with stops located at the on-ramps.

The study also looked at using a stretch of freight train tracks between Caldwell and the Boise Depot currently owned by Union Pacific, called the Boise Cutoff. Three alternatives included setting up a light rail or BRT with exclusive lanes alongside the existing tracks or adding commuter rail on the tracks. For the commuter rail option, a bus would ferry passengers into downtown Boise from the Boise Depot.

Can it happen?

These ideas only barely exist on paper though, for now.

In his presentation, Post acknowledged several major hurdles the Treasure Valley would have to clear to build a system like this. Cost is the most major, with the lowest cost option of building a BRT system without dedicated lanes still estimated to cost a few hundred million to construct.

And light rail from Boise to Caldwell? More than $2 billion.

Idaho is one of two states in the country without either dedicated funding for transportation from the state of Idaho or local option taxing authority so residents can vote to raise the sales tax on themselves to pay for preferred projects. Some politicians, like former Mayor Dave Bieter, advocated for legalizing local option taxing authority to pay for a public transit system, but the proposal gets little to no traction in the legislature.

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The dedicated lanes for the system is also an issue. Currently, HOV lanes are illegal in most areas of Idaho and some attempts to change this in the legislature have faltered in recent years. Local governments would also have to negotiate with the railroad company that controls the tracks between Canyon and Ada counties to see if they would allow a system to run in their right of way or on the tracks themselves.

So what’s best?

The study found pros and cons for all eleven of the combinations, but Post said they were all strong enough ideas that COMPASS should move ahead with studying them. A BRT that mixes with traffic moving along Fairview Avenue and Cherry Lane narrowly scored the highest out of all of the alternatives, mostly because of its cost effectiveness.

The second highest scoring alternative was a BRT system without dedicated lanes, but running along Franklin Road instead.

Commuter rail had some drawbacks because it would be more difficult to access by car, bicycle or walking than any of the other options because of the location of the tracks, but it scored well in the travel time category because of the high speed of the train. It also had good marks in cost-effectiveness because it would utilize tracks already in place.

Going forward, Post said COMPASS should work to update ridership estimates when the 2020 Census Data was available, begin discussions with the federal government about funding, consider a phased build out and develop a strategy for what local resources could be used toward the project.

He also encouraged officials to talk with neighboring localities with similar systems, like Vancouver Washington, Eugene Oregon and Salt Lake City.

“You are in a unique position in Boise because you have a variety of areas around you that have gone through this process,” he said. “…Take advantage of that. Have those discussions about what they would do differently, what they did right and how that might change your thinking on alternatives.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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