Meridian is growing faster than public transit. Funding is a key obstacle

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As the City of Meridian grows, traffic conditions continue to get busier. City council member Luke Cavener said one way traffic can be combated is by adding more public transportation options.

Recently, Meridian has invested more into its public transportation system. The city introduced the Monday through Saturday Harvest Route for seniors, persons with disabilities, and veterans. Additionally, Meridian will soon launch its first dedicated bus route, 30 Pine, and will add two electric busses. 

But before the addition of the Harvest Route and planned 30 Pine route, Meridian has had issues establishing a broad public transportation system.

[COVID-19 delays new Meridian bus route and ValleyRide electric busses]

Why does Boise invest so much more?

Buses on Boise’s Main Street. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The City of Boise set aside $7.7 million in its FY-2022 budget for investments in Valley Regional Transit. Meridian contributed just $575,354 toward VRT for the same period, which includes the cost of the future 30 Pine route. VRT Executive Director Kelli Badesheim says the significant difference in funding is largely due to Boise having a larger service area.

“I think (Boise pays) about 78% from the operation side, but they get 78% of the service, so it can also appear as if they’re funding more than their fair share. A few years ago, that probably was true.” Badesheim said.

Badesheim added that VRT has a new allocation method that helps ensure cities are paying their ‘fair share.’

“We did a new cost allocation methodology to help make that more even across, so everybody’s paying their fair share of both the operating direct and the overhead costs. So Boise’s contribution to the total budget is I think around 33%. We also get a lot of funding through federal sources. And but when you just take the operations, they’re funding about 78% but they’re also getting that same amount of service.” 

Another reason why Boise spends more on public transportation than Meridian is because Boise has had an established system for decades. Boise started working on its public transportation system in the 1970s.

[Growth brings increased complaints about traffic. But cities like Meridian say they can’t just stop new construction]

“I can remember when I worked for Boise Urban Stages, which was that system that started in the mid-70s, that really only served the City of Boise. I can remember when I would sit in city council meetings and they were asking a lot of the same questions. ‘Why are we funding transit?’ And we’ve got all these other needs,” Badesheim said.

Cities surrounding Boise such as Meridian are seeing explosive growth and Badesheim said this leads to more focus on adding or expanding public transportation options.

“… the City of Boise was in that same place that Eagle and Meridian and these burgeoning sort of growing cities are in. It was hard to make those decisions. You cannot be an urbanizing and an urbanized area growing the way Boise is and even Meridian, and Nampa, and Caldwell without getting to the conclusion that transit has to be part of it. So now these other cities are kind of coming up there, and it’s just an evolution process. And it would be easy to look at it in today and say, why don’t they do more and why aren’t they doing more?”

Idaho limitations 

New electric buses recently rolled out in Boise. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The State of Idaho also plays a large role when deciding how much Meridian can invest in public transit. In Idaho, when a city starts contributing to public transit, it must consider items such as employee salaries, bus maintenance, and equipment. 

“​​Public transit has been a part of Boise’s DNA,” Cavener said. “And I think, in part because of the way that we fund public transit in Idaho, is that transit becomes an item on an ever-growing list of priorities for a city. And for a city like Meridian that has seen significant growth really, as long as I can remember, with limited financial resources, it was a case of, ‘can the city of Meridian invest in transit long term?’ Because what you don’t want to do is fund public transit for a year and then stop or fund it for two years that a new mayor comes in and you stop.”

During annual budget hearings, Cavener says council members are tasked with deciding what is ‘more important’ or what the city needs more of. Cities also have to consider the property tax increase cap.

Cavener said that ‘priorities may shift from council member to council member.’

“We’re very quickly getting to the point that we’re gonna need to be buying two new fire trucks every year. If you buy two fire trucks at one and a half million dollars for two and a property tax increases only netting you let’s say an additional million dollars in revenue, it can be really challenging. So for me, it’s always been focusing on public safety first, and then once that’s been answered and addressed, well then that’s looking at some of the other needs of the city,” he said.

He talked about how the fast growth leads the council to often discuss where the money should be going. Cavener also spoke of the benefits of transit but emphasized how expensive it is to add an entire system at once.

“So that could be parks, it can be other community programs, it could be some of our membership affiliations. But I think public transit falls into that and I also think too because we grew so fast, it was hard to say where do we start because you’ve got pockets all across the valley that could probably benefit from transit in some form or another, but you can’t afford to do it all at once.” 

Intercounty transit & willingness to ride

Cavener also stressed the importance of expanding intercounty routes in Meridian.

“The long-term viability is that 30 Pine and Meridian’s transit options have got to connect with Boise and with Canyon County in some way shape or form in the future,” he said “… but there are many people who live in Boise that come to Meridian to work now, as we have Meridian residents who leave to go to Boise. So I think that we can impact our public transit offerings region-wide when we start to connect in our county and inter-city. So those are the places that I think would make the most sense, but I’m going to look to the experts to tell me where we need to grow.”

The city council member added that adding more public transportation will only alleviate traffic if people are willing to use it.

“But I’m saying (to the mayor) you should have a town hall on the bus like encourage people to take advantage we’re investing in it. And so if we’re going to invest in it, my hope is that the public takes advantage and uses it,” Cavener said. “The more people that we can put on public transit is one of the best ways that we can combat the rise of commute times.”

Autum Robertson - BoiseDev Reporter
Autum Robertson - BoiseDev Reporter
Autum Robertson is a BoiseDev reporter focused on Meridian and McCall. Contact her at [email protected].

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