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The pandemic decreased bus ridership. Officials make changes, hope to boost alternative options

COVID-19 and remote work gave commuting in Boise a serious shakeup in 2020, but local transportation officials are still working on new ways to get travelers out of their cars.

The City of Boise, Ada County Highway District and Valley Regional Transit are all in the midst of rolling out new improvements to the region’s transit system, including grants for small businesses to upgrade their infrastructure, new amenities for bus riders and a package deal for flexible commuting.

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Bre Brush, Mayor Lauren McLean’s transportation advisor, said adding more transportation options in and around Idaho’s capital city is important as more residents continue to crowd the roads. Brush said this both helps the city meet its climate goals, but also gives residents more ways to avoid congestion.

“We have to provide choices for people,” Brush said. “They have to be convenient and they have to be reliable. If we can do this, we can get people out of their cars and see better outcomes all around. We want to be able to preserve the quality of life our residents love so much and sitting in traffic doesn’t help that.”

Pandemic took a bite out of VRT ridership

Since the virus first hit Idaho, the average number of week-day riders on Valley Regional Transit buses dropped by a third as of April 2021. It’s fluctuated up and down slightly since the initial steep decline but riders have not returned anywhere near pre-pandemic levels.

Boise’s by far most popular route is State Street, which declined from a weekday average of 1,000 riders in April and May 2020 down to 619 in June 2020. It dropped further to 570 in April 2021, the latest available data provided by the City of Boise. The next busiest route was Vista Avenue, which peaked at an average of 459 average week day riders in February 2020 before slipping down to 298 in April 2020. A year later in April 2021, it dropped further to 261.

A graph showing Valley Regional Transit Ridership during the pandemic. Courtesy of the City of Boise

But, some routes were low, to begin with, and have stayed low. The route serving Boise’s Barber Valley topped out at an average week day ridership of 264 passengers in March 2019 before dropping down below an average of 100 riders per week after the pandemic hit. The route through Garden City is even lower, with a peak of an average 45 riders per week day in November 2019 and only 17 in April 2021.

Out with Garden City, in with Fairview

Garden City is on the chopping block on October 4 due to the low ridership, but residents will still be in the range of VRT’s Lyft Transit Connections program to get riders from State Street to their destinations. Brush said some of the funding that used to go into the Garden City Route will be used to add more trips on the Fairview Route connecting the Boise Towne Square Mall to Downtown Boise.

Brush said the calculations of shifting resources from underperforming routes to more highly traveled ones is a necessary part of running a transit system, but it’s not always clear when it is the right time to cut service. The final decision on which routes to cut or change is made by the Valley Regional Transit Board.

“Eventually we would eventually do that with those routes that don’t recover, but the hard question is when do you know?” she said. “When do you know that you’ve reached that point of recovery? How do we make people feel comfortable using transit again?”

Boise and VRT are still planning to throw its weight behind State Street to continue growing ridership on the heavily traveled corridor. A few months ago, the City of Boise landed news of a roughly $2 million grant from the federal government to help pay for improvements for riders in the area, like bus shelters, real-time signage to let riders know when a bus is coming, trash cans, bike racks, and other improvements.

Other route changes taking effect this week include reducing frequency on the Warm Springs Avenue Route, the Caldwell Express, a temporary suspension of the service to Eagle on the State Street Route, and a delay of a new route in Meridian.

A range of commuting options for sale

Not everyone can use the same transportation method every day.

One effort to increase flexibility for commuters is VRT’s CityGo program. This initiative allows employers or individuals to sign up for members to gain access to packages that provide a range of discounted travel choices. This could include a bus pass at a reduced rate, a parking space in downtown a certain amount of days per month, a spot in a vanpool through Ada County Highway District’s Commuterride or bike parking.

The program is funded by a few major partners like urban renewal agency Capital City Development Corporation, ACHD, and Boise State University. Right now it primarily serves three large downtown employers, Clearwater Analytics(which does not provide parking for employees), Ada County, and St. Luke’s Health System, but it will be more heavily promoted to individual users in the coming months.

Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

Wayne Rysavy, the spokesperson for CityGo, said the program provides a discount of between 20 and 50% depending on chosen modes of travel. This allows users to be able to afford a range of different transportation choices, instead of having the budget to only pay for one way to get into work.

“We have people telling us they love the flexibility because they can buy those four one day passes for 20 dollars, so some of them are walking or biking most days, but if they have to come in for a quick meeting they have to use one of those four day parking passes,” Rysavy said. “The flexibility of the system has been well appreciated as we’re coming back to the office in our pandemic moment.”

Pricing for the corporate memberships increases depending on the size of the organization, with companies under 20 employees paying $75 per person all the way up to $6,000 total to cover the largest number of workers. Membership for an individual costs $50 per year.

Money available for small businesses to add transit

Even though ACHD is mostly known for its road projects, the organization is about to launch a new transportation grant program for small businesses.

Thanks to a $35,000 grant from AARP, $20,000 from the City of Boise and $10,000 of its own funds, ACHD is rolling out a program to award businesses with fewer than 100 employees up to $3,000 to improve transit for their employees. These grants can be used for bike racks, secure bike lockers, free vanpool passes or CityGo memberships for employees or even e-bikes for workers to share for traveling to lunch or to meetings during the day.

ACHD’s Commuterride Manager Tessa Greegor said the district is still in the process of reviewing the over 30 applications from businesses located in five out of Ada County’s six cities. She said the program will help smaller businesses more options for employees and help build more flexible commuting and work environments throughout the county, not just in the downtown core.

“It’s been really exciting to see the level of interest in the community and as the word has gotten out more and more and more organizations are seeing this as a resource to provide some financial support to establish those programs and different workplace enhancements to support their employees,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the ridership data. It has been corrected to reflect that the numbers in this story are the average week day ridership numbers.

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. 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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