The pandemic kept lots of workers off of the roads on their morning commute, but planning for better public transit service in Boise isn’t slowing down.
On Tuesday, Boise City Council discussed their upcoming plans for improving Valley Regional Transit service in the next fiscal year and heard from system advocates hoping for more routes. This is the latest push from city officials to plan for more bus service as the Treasure Valley continues to grow and strains the road system.
Seeking a boost from Washington
State Street is a main focus for improvements in the upcoming fiscal year. Boise officials have long eyed the busy corridor for a bus rapid transit system to help bring commuters into the city. These systems function like trains with larger buses, stops on raised platforms with ticketing kiosks and they often have their own travel lanes.
Boise’s Associate Transportation Planner Karen Gallagher said building a BRT system on the busy street is the region’s best chance to control congestion.
“One of the reasons we’re focusing on State Street is because without transit we would be looking at 9 lanes to serve the needs projected years ago,” she told city council. “Transit is the best solution for this corridor.”
To start building the infrastructure for the system, Boise hopes to use $6.2 million in funds offset by CARES Act funds to apply for a grant from the federal government. Often federal grants require a locality to provide some funds of their own as a local match. Gallagher said staff is still in the early planning stages to see how large of a grant they want to apply for, but they’re hoping Boise gets federal funding to help build enhanced stops with real time information on when buses will arrive next and enhanced shelters.
Depending on how large a grant they apply for, Gallagher said the city is also considering applying for funds to build out additional lanes on State Street between the major intersections where the buses could run.
Boise also hopes to continue improvements on Vista and Fairview Avenue, which they have designated their “best in class” routes with the highest ridership and the most likely places to see gains with additional service. Gallagher said of the three, Fairview is “lagging behind” in improvements, so it will be a focus for possible new shelters, benches and bike racks.
Boise is the driving force behind VRT
City Council President Elaine Clegg, one of the major advocates for public transit funding, said during the work session she thinks the upcoming fiscal year while Boise is recovering from COVID-19 are an ideal time to work on public transit projects.
“As we move forward with this knowing we will have a year with lower ridership…it seems like it’s a tremendous opportunity to catch up on some of these amenities in a time when it won’t be quite as disruptive because there won’t be quite as many riders,” she said.
Valley Regional Transit wouldn’t run anywhere in the Treasure Valley without Boise.
The city’s investment makes up 87% of VRT’s budget. Bre Brush, McLean’s transportation advisory, told council one of the goals for the upcoming year is to work with VRT and make their budget as transparent to the public as Boise’s because it’s such a large chunk of the city’s budget.
In 2019, Clegg brought forward a policy change requiring roughly 5% of Boise’s property tax collections to go toward VRT. This meant the city’s contribution to transit steadily grew as the city grew, instead of requiring a debate on how much to increase per year. VRT got $7.5 million from Boise in 2019, $8.5 million in 2020 and $8.4 million in 2021.
It’s too early to say this early in the city’s planning for the fiscal year 2022 budget cycle how much Boise will contribute to VRT.
Planning on track despite drop in riders
Despite the pandemic, the bus system saw a 1.4% increase in ridership in 2020 over 2019. This is due to a variety of factors, like increases in the first three months of 2020 prior to COVID-19 and the system changing to automatic passenger counters on buses that tend to count more passengers than the old system that counted fares.
But, VRT’s planner Stephen Hunt said the upward trend won’t continue in 2021. He expects ridership for this year to be down anywhere from 20% to 50% from 2020.
“We saw significant declines over the summer and the fall and the impacts of COVID have obviously not gone away,” he told the council. “When we look in terms of when we will see the bigger impacts of ridership, we expect to see that in 2021.”
VRT would typically see two spikes in riders, one in the morning and one in the evening as workers traveled to and from their jobs. But, during the pandemic the system had the most riders in the middle of the day. Saturday ridership also did not decline as much as it did on weekdays.
Transportation = economic stability
Riders and advocates have high hopes for more bus service in Boise and throughout the metro area.
In the evening city council meeting, several Boiseans zoomed into council for the annual virtual public hearing on transportation funding. They encouraged the city to keep funding the system and building out more services, like bus rapid transit on State Street, better infrastructure to accommodate bikes on buses and more north-south routes in the city.
Mary Beth Nutting applauded the city’s efforts to grow the system, but she said connectivity between Boise and other cities are lacking. She said a 30 minute drive to Meridian for a meeting would be a two hour trip on public transit. Nutting said the city should try and work with other cities to improve service to the western edge of the city where more lower income workers are relocating due to rising costs closer to the urban core.
“I would like to encourage you to continue to try and collaborate with Meridian in providing that connectivity between the two cities,” she said.
Interfaith Sanctuary Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers also testified alongside three guests of the homeless shelter. They shared feedback with the small transit system and suggested adding routes to get to Canyon County so they can access jobs and routes on Sundays. Peterson-Stigers said the lacking public transit system in the valley means her guests often remain homeless for longer than necessary because they cannot get to work or travel to and from affordable housing.
“Transportation is directly related to how rapidly we can get someone out of their homeless situation,” she said.