The federal money train left the station on Feb. 17, but Idaho wasn’t on board.
Despite over $200 million in requests, the Gem State was among only nine states to see their wish lists completely shut out under the $1.5 billion Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery stimulus program, better known as TIGER.
Projects ranging from “shovel-ready” work along Interstate 84 to expanded bus service in the Treasure Valley were nixed by the feds, as well as a $40 million request from the city of Boise to float a portion of the proposed $60 million downtown streetcar.
The streetcar – a 2.3 mile loop running 15 blocks from east to west – had been by far the most politically charged of Idaho’s TIGER proposals.
Passionately fronted by Boise Mayor Dave Bieter since mid-2008, the original streetcar plan called for $40 million in federal funds and $20 million to come from the Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s general fund and a local improvement district affecting property owners within three blocks of the route.
Opinion has been fiercely split between those, like Bieter, who see the streetcar as a mix between transit and economic development, and opponents, which include many downtown property owners, who say the project is an unnecessary use of tax dollars and puts too much pressure on already economically strained downtown businesses.
Others have been generally in favor of the streetcar both as a development tool and the beginning of a region-wide mass transit system, but prefer a different route – notably one which runs north-south from Boise State University to the state Capitol.
Bieter said while the loss of TIGER funds was disappointing, it gives the city an opportunity to revisit the basics of the project – including its proposed route.
“It does allow us to change or broaden the discussion surrounding the project,” he said in a Feb. 17 interview. “Certainly we’re disappointed, but we were really against the odds.”
City officials said the feds didn’t have specific recommendations on how to improve the application, but many projects which did receive funding benefited from local option taxing authority – something the city of Boise doesn’t have.
“Not having a local option, overall, is not helpful,” he said.
The local option issue has been a perennial sticking point for the city, and Bieter said he hopes this year’s legislative session results in some action on that front. In the meantime, Bieter’s streetcar task force in the next few weeks is expected to take up the discussion of whether a north-south alignment would better serve the project’s goals, and he pledged that the city will continue pursuing other sources of federal money.
“We wouldn’t rule anything out at this point,” he said, adding that the north-south route has “always been a part of the discussion.”
“Intuitively that makes sense to people,” he said. “You have a more defined destination.”
The most immediate funding opportunities include the Small Starts transit investment program and the federal transportation spending reauthorization, both which are expected sometime in the next 12 to 18 months.
That means reworking current studies, looking at alternatives and continuing to make the case for the streetcar with the public.
Bieter said the momentum behind the project is still there, and he remains hopeful that Boise will get its shot at the federal money pot. Looking at the list (PDF) of projects that did receive TIGER funding – including streetcar projects in Tucson, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; and Dallas, Texas – he said Boise’s plan fits with current federal priorities.
“It indicates that the federal government looks favorably on these sorts of projects,” he said. “What it says to Boiseans is that these are important projects.
“In my conversations with other mayors in other communities, they all see it as an important piece in making their communities move forward in the direction they want them to,” he said.