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Planners: Valley can’t build its way out of congestion

A Valley Regional Transit bus in downtown Boise. File photo

A Valley Regional Transit bus in downtown Boise. File photo

By 2040, the Treasure Valley is supposed to have more than 1 million people, according to estimates from the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, or COMPASS, compared with the 669,830 it was estimated to have had as of April.

How will they get to work?

One of the key tenets of Boise’s Transportation Action Plan is the acknowledgement that the city can’t build its way out of congestion, said Daren Fluke, Boise’s comprehensive planning manager.

Consequently, a number of regional agencies are working on ways to encourage people to get to work other than by driving alone in their cars – or single-occupancy vehicles, to use the industry parlance. And residents want that, according to Boise State University’s School of Public Service second annual Treasure Valley Survey.  Nearly three quarters of all respondents said their community could use more mass transit options, and 34 percent said they would like to see public transportation as a public spending priority.

The Communities in Motion 2040 Vision, created by the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, illustrates the COMPASS preferred growth scenario for the Treasure Valley, specifically Ada and Canyon counties. The vision includes new housing and jobs along transit corridors and major activity centers with a strong focus on maintaining the region’s recreation and open space areas. Map courtesy of COMPASS.

The Communities in Motion 2040 Vision, created by the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, illustrates the COMPASS preferred growth scenario for the Treasure Valley, specifically Ada and Canyon counties. The vision includes new housing and jobs along transit corridors and major activity centers with a strong focus on maintaining the region’s recreation and open space areas. Map courtesy of COMPASS.

Additional transit options do more than reduce traffic. They also make it easier for people who can’t drive, such as the disabled, new refugees, or others who can’t afford cars, to work. In one Nampa neighborhood, 20 percent of residents said they had difficulty getting to the places they needed to because of transportation concerns, said Karla Nelson, a community planner for the city of Nampa.

square-feet-january-blurbThe problem is how to pay for it. Idaho is one of only two states – the other being Mississippi – that doesn’t have a dedicated funding source for public transit.

“We’re really hamstrung by the Legislature not allowing us to ask our citizens to fund this another way,” Fluke said. Other than resort cities, Idaho cities and counties are not granted local option taxing authority, which would let residents vote to tax themselves to pay for projects such as public transit.

Boise contributes $7 million – the largest amount of the Treasure Valley cities – toward the ValleyRide fixed-route transit service. “That $7 million comes from the General Fund, which is a competitive place for money,” because it also funds services such as police, fire, and parks departments, Fluke said. “By the time those three are paid for, there’s not a lot of money left.”

And that’s true for cities throughout the Treasure Valley. In Canyon County, for example, there is federal funding – on the order of $700,000 to $1 million – that ValleyRide can’t get because there aren’t enough local dollars to provide the required match, said Kelli Badesheim, executive director of Valley Regional Transit or VRT, the Meridian-based governing body that operates ValleyRide.

Lack of public transportation is costing commuters money

The thing is, residents are spending money on transportation anyway, said Stephen Hunt, VRT’s principal planner. While the Treasure Valley spends $15 million on public transit, it spends $1.5 billion annually on the operation and maintenance of cars, he said.

A screenshot of the v

A screenshot from Ada County High District’s Commuteride website showing available transportation options.

For people who don’t want to be car-dependent, the options boil down to ValleyRide, Commuteride, walking, or riding a bicycle, said Matt Stoll, executive director for COMPASS, in Meridian. COMPASS is the metropolitan planning organization for Ada and Canyon counties, which coordinates long-term transportation plans for the region.

VRT’s update to its Valley Connect plan, Valley Connect 2.0, is due to go the board in January, get public comment, and then be finalized by April, Badesheim said. “The main difference is that it’s actually going to have scenarios,” she said. VRT wants to demonstrate the gap between where it is today, and where it should be to achieve the levels it should have by 2040, she said.

Boise is also working on other bus alternatives within city limits such as its proposed downtown fixed guideway (rail) station, as well as a State Street rapid transit bus line, a five- to seven-year construction project that is starting as soon as this month at Veterans Memorial Parkway, Fluke said.

Commuteride, a division of the Ada County Highway District, has for two years provided the website MyCommuterCrew.com, which lets people enter their typical commuting routes and find commuting alternatives, said

Kathleen Godfrey

Kathleen Godfrey

Kathleen Godfrey, Commuteride marketing outreach. Commuteride is also working with more than 100 Treasure Valley companies on customizable subsites that let people share rides with others, sometimes in the same organization, such as St. Luke’s Health System or Boise State University, she said. Within each company, Commuteride tries to find an employee transportation coordinator to promote transportation options, such as through subsidies and other incentives, she said.  The service has 2700 users.

For pedestrians and bicyclists, Boise and Nampa are each working on projects to improve access, such as making crossings safer. Such projects give commuters options, Fluke said.

“What transit is about is helping give people freedom to move throughout the region to fully live their lives,” Badesheim said. “If it requires you to own your own vehicle to participate in society, that says something and comes at a real cost to everyone who wants to participate.”

Boise State University School of Public Service survey

Boise State University’s School of Public Service released its second annual Treasure Valley Survey Oct. 19. The survey asked 1,000 adult residents of Ada, Boise, Canyon, Gem and Owyhee Counties for their opinions on a variety of topics, including economic development, employment, housing, taxes and public spending priorities.

Nearly three-quarters of all respondents said their community could use more mass transit options – a 7 percent increase from the previous year – and 34 percent said they would like to see public transportation as a public spending priority, the highest of the several transportation options listed, survey authors said.

When asked what the Treasure Valley’s top transportation priority should be, 29.9 percent said commuter rail and 23 percent said bus routes. Respondents were also asked to rate, on a scale from 1-7, how difficult or easy it is for them to get to a particular place, with 1 being very difficult and 7 being very easy.

Some places were found to be quite easy for Treasure Valley residents to get to; for example, about three-fourths of respondents rated grocery stores, healthcare facilities, and entertainment and recreation as either a 6 or 7. However, only about one-half of respondents found access to educational or employment opportunities equally easy to get to, Boise State reported.

Access to social services and community resources fared least well. Only 40 percent of respondents rated access to social services or community services as either a 6 or 7; 41 percent rated access to social services as a 3, 4, or 5.

 

If Boise had the transit funding of comparable cities

If Valley Ride could get the same level of funding as comparable cities like Spokane, Wash., Tucson, Arizona or Madison, Wisc., what could it do?

Stephen Hunt, principal planner for Valley Regional Transit, laid out some possibilities:

· Nine or more “frequent corridors” that would have buses every 10 to 15 minutes, at least during peak periods, and operating until at least 9 p.m., with some operating until 10 pm or midnight. These corridors could include Fairview, Vista, Overland, State, Cherry, Nampa-Caldwell, 16th Ave., and Garrity

· Express services that connected Caldwell, Nampa, Meridian, and Boise along 44, Chinden, and I-84, also every 15 minutes at least during peak periods, and supported by park-and-ride lots

“There’s every reason to believe it could be done here within five to 10 years if the funding were to be made available,” he said.

This story was modified at 9 a.m. on January 5 to say that Boise’s other bus alternative proposals within city limits include a downtown fixed guideway (rail) station.

About Sharon Fisher

One comment

  1. I recognize that funding is a major issue, and I also recognize that some feel that rail is a wasteful place to put resources. However, I think a rapid transit rail system (80mph trains) from Caldwell to Boise (stops in Caldwell, Nampa, Ten Mile, Meridian, Eagle Rd., Towne Sq, Depot….then possibly to the airport, then Micron area) would be an amazing way to support efficient people movement in the valley. I imagine the ride from Caldwell to the Depot would only be approx. 30 mins, maybe less. Coordinated bus service at each stop to funnel riders to/from neighborhoods around each stop, along with parking areas at each station will make it easy to gain access to the system. The other thing rapid rail transit does (and I think is overlooked often) is that the stations become major compact development zones (more so than already planned) because of the new commuter access that the system would provide i.e. putting mixed use high density residential and employment centers within a short walk for workers (smart growth, less sprawl).

    The benefits for commuters are reduced commute time, more personal time while riding trains (social media or responding to emails, reviewing calendar, or preparing for an early meeting etc.), no parking fees if working in downtown Boise, less gas money and wear and tear on cars. The only drawbacks for commuters are a tad less independence (“I gotta catch the 5:15 or I’m toast”), and train fares.

    I strongly feel that streetcars, and even light rail is the wrong place to put resources. Street cars have a novelty feel, with little to no benefit for the entire valley. Light rail can benefit the entire valley, but it’s a much slower solution because it doesn’t have it’s own right-of-way.

    The biggest drawback for the community as a whole is cost. Rapid transit (i.e. heavy rail) needs it’s own right-of-way. The good thing is that there is an existing rail right-of-way, but it’s not rated for high speeds due to lots of street crossings and other issues. So the system would (likely) need to be elevated over the same right-of-way to eliminate the street crossings. That’s pricey, but once built, it is an enormous asset for the entire valley given that we will have over 400,000 new neighbors in about 25 years or less.

    I’ve lived in a large handful of major metropolitan areas over the past 40 years, and rapid transit heavy rail systems seem to be the only ones that are effective at moving people around quickly….to the point of making it easy for people to decide that driving is not as good as an alternative as the train. Portland OR has had some good success with their light rail system, but it is slower, yet still a good alternative for downtown workers and airport users. I’m not certain of Portland’s luck with light rail, but it may be due to the horrible traffic that their residents had to endure coming from western suburbs (Beaverton and Hillsboro) in getting to downtown. The train provided the only option, and even though it’s slower, it’s still faster than driving.

    Heavy rail is expensive, but by far the best solution for a metropolitan area that is growing as fast as the Treasure Valley, and this system will foster smart growth and less sprawl in the coming decades, while efficiently moving people around the valley (speed, cost, and better time use in transit).