Ada County has a unique distinction: it is said to have the only county-wide highway district in the U.S.
Ada County Highway District is one of nearly 300 separate highway jurisdictions, including cities, counties and individual highway districts. The system has come in for plenty of praise and blame.
Ada County is Boise Mayor Dave Bieter has said in the past that his Basque counterparts make fun of him by calling him “the mayor without streets” because he doesn’t have control over city roads.
But Rebecca Arnold, ACHD president, argues that the organization “isn’t some evil entity that arose and took control of the streets away from the City of Boise.”
Arnold, a candidate for Boise mayor, said she wouldn’t want to change the ACHD, which was voted into existence, “because I understand how ACHD functions and why it was put into place, and I respect the decisions of the voters.”
“I guess that’s where Mayor Bieter and I differ,” she said. “He doesn’t want to respect the choice that the voters made. It was the people’s choice to put that system into place, and I think you have to respect what the people you serve choose as their method of government.”
Recently, Idaho Business Review staff writer Sharon Fisher sat down with Arnold and Justin Lucas, ACHD planning, programming manager, to talk about ACHD’s plans, particularly related to the Treasure Valley’s unprecedented growth.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
How is ACHD handling growth?
Rebecca Arnold: Carefully. We’ve worked very closely with the cities and counties and with our commercial partners on all development applications. They all come through ACHD. Our staff prepares a detailed report to indicate to the agency what the impact’s going to be on our transportation network and what the potential traffic impacts will be.
We also participate in Compass, which is the regional metropolitan planning organization. Compass compiles the comprehensive plans for each of the incorporated cities and the county, and they run numbers on where the population centers are going to be, or plan to be, and what the traffic impacts will be, where the infrastructure needs to be to accommodate each of the comprehensive plans.
They don’t always grow exactly as you expect them to, the pace is unpredictable. Sometimes land uses change. You may have an area where the comprehensive plan shows four units per acre and then suddenly there’s a change and a 300 unit apartment complex is thrown into the mix. That causes us to have to adjust the transportation plans to try to accommodate that.
Are you ever allowed to say, “No, we don’t want you to build that development because we can’t handle it right now?”
Rebecca Arnold: Really, no. There are only a few circumstances under which ACHD can say no to a development. One of those, and we did this on an infill project in the Foothills, they have to have 20 feet of clear pavement for fire access. If the development cannot provide a path in that has at least 20 feet of clear pavement, then that is a basis for saying no to the development.
But what we have to look at is the road network that’s in place and whether or not the roadways have the physical capacity to handle the traffic. It may not be desirable to have as much traffic on those roads, but if the capacity is there, we can’t justify saying no to a development.
But if the capacity isn’t there, what control do you have?
Rebecca Arnold: We can ask the developers to make certain improvements to the system to bring the capacity up to where it needs to be. The developers also pay impact fees, which help us built out the infrastructure that we need.
What are some other things that ACHD is doing to address congestion besides adding more lanes?
Rebecca Arnold: Well we focused on building an urban transportation network, an overall network that accommodates all users. We program in pedestrian facilities. We program in bicycle facilities to provide folks with alternatives. We work with VRT to accommodate what they need in the way of bus stops and facilities for transit.
So we do try to have an overall system that accommodates all users. The other thing that we do is we’re improving a lot of the two lane farm-to-market roads and expanding those to make them more accessible to all users. The old farm-to-market roads don’t have sidewalks. They don’t have bike lanes. They’re two lanes, so they’re not particularly useful for transit.
In order to have an effective bus system, the busses have to be able to move and not get stuck in traffic. That’s why major arterials have five lanes. Traffic can always get around them, so it keeps the flow moving.
Are you talking about providing any bus-only lanes or transit-only lanes?
Rebecca Arnold: Those are not currently allowed under state law.
You mentioned impact fees. What other sources of funding are you looking for? Last year, you tried to raise registration fees, and that was not as successful as you had hoped.
Rebecca Arnold: We actually did a detailed analysis of what our options were for funding. We looked at registration fees of course; we looked at bonding; we looked at local improvement districts. We looked at going to the Legislature and putting in other sources of funding.
There’s a task force that the state has right now to look at transportation funding. Not just here, but statewide, and they’re looking at a host of different sources. One example was a tax on rental cars, so each time someone rented a car, for example, there would be a special fee accessed that would go into transportation to help pay for infrastructure.
So we’re looking at working with the Legislature on trying to implement what comes out of a task force that’s still in process at this point. We may very well go back to the voters again on registration fee. I wouldn’t rule it out. There’s no current plan to do that. The registration fee has been in place for a long time. In 2008, we went back to the voters and said, ‘OK, we not only want to renew this registration fee, we want you to double it, and here’s what we’re going to do with the money.’
And I think because we were very clear as to where the money was going to go, we were successful in that effort, and we’ve kept our promise to the voters and spent the money as we said we would. So I wouldn’t rule it out going back for another registration fee, but I believe in asking the public, ‘How do you want to pay for your improvements?’ and, ‘Is this something that works for the public?’ rather than just relying on property taxes.
Other than roads, what other transportation systems are you working on in terms of busses and so on?
Rebecca Arnold: We have currently the most successful ride sharing program, transit program if you want to call it that. It’s called Commuteride.
Justin Lucas: It’s been probably over 30 years now that we’ve been running that program. It’s a really successful program that ACHD has worked with employers on.
We reach out to major employers. We really are focused on transportation demand management through that program, of trying to give people options: Van pooling, carpooling, biking, walking and really supporting choices in transportation.
How many people use Commuteride?
Justin Lucas: Right now, I believe we have 80, around 80 vans; 78 vans in service right now. So if you average that out, about 10 people per van, you’re looking at well over 700 people using that program.
How many people commute into Boise every day?
Justin Lucas: Great question, a lot more than 700 people.
Are you talking like 1%? 10%?
Justin Lucas: You know, I don’t know that number right off the top of my head, of the percentages of people commuting in and commuting out. In our area, because it’s still rapidly growing, we’re in the early phases of kind of our development pattern. There’s still a lot more to go.
So what we see now, the commute, although I always think it will be a strong, kind of towards the central business district, when you look at areas like Ten Mile and the freeway and some of those major businesses choosing to locate in the western part of our county, that’s going to have a significant impact in the long term.
People are going to have options, there’s going to be, hopefully, jobs closer to where they live and people will be able to kind of mitigate how they make those trips.
Rebecca Arnold: We recently updated our bike master plan and included a low-stress bike network that encourages people who might not be comfortable being on a roadway with so many cars to ride their bikes because they have an alternative that has lower traffic and less stress.
We also worked with the school districts to identify routes where children could walk or bike to school and have put in place improvements that provide for that. It’s called our Safe Routes to School program.
That’s a federal program right?
Rebecca Arnold: It is a federal program, but we locally fund it as well, because it’s been important to us to encourage walking and biking. It’s healthier; it takes cars off the road, and it also allows the school districts to save money because they don’t have to provide safety bussing in areas where there weren’t routes for the kids to safely walk to school.
Now, my understanding is that ACHD is the only district like it in the country where we have a single highway district that governs the entire county. Earlier this year the Legislature talked about a plan to potentially “ACHD-ise” the rest of the state and make all of the counties have countywide highway districts. What do you think of that idea?
Rebecca Arnold: I think you have to look at the history of how ACHD came to be. The legislation was put into place in 1970, I think? In 1972, the voters in Ada County overwhelmingly voted to change the system from each city having its own road department to a single countywide highway district. So it’s a choice made by the citizens of Ada County, and I think that should apply to other counties as well.
I think it works very well in Ada County. It’s been very efficient. We have the best roads in the Northwest, so it works here. I don’t know that I would feel comfortable telling another county, ‘Because it works here, you have to do this as well.’ I think it needs to be left up to the citizens in those counties to decide what works best for their community.
So each county should have a vote as opposed to having the state dictate?
Rebecca Arnold: Well, that’s how it’s set up currently. Each county, the citizens can do exactly what Ada County did and vote to make the change. Of course, the Legislature could take a different approach and encourage consolidation by tying it to funding somehow. I’ve heard that that’s something that’s been talked about, but I have no idea where that is in the Legislature.
You’re running for mayor, and Dave Bieter says that the other people make fun of him because they call him the mayor without streets. How would it feel for you to be, if you win as mayor of Boise, to not be able to control your own streets? Is that something you would look to change?
Rebecca Arnold: No, I wouldn’t look to change that because I understand how ACHD functions and why it was put into place, and I respect the decisions of the voters. I guess that’s where Mayor Bieter and I differ. He doesn’t want to respect the choice that the voters made. ACHD isn’t some evil entity that arose and took control of the streets away from the City of Boise. It was the people’s choice to put that system into place, and I think you have to respect what the people you serve choose as their method of government.
One could argue that what voters decided many, many years ago, well we have a whole lot of people now and perhaps the people now would feel differently.
Rebecca Arnold: It could always be put back on the ballot. What the voters did, the voters could undo. You have to look at whether it makes sense. Does ACHD provide the service that it was intended to, and does it work?
And if you think about it, if you didn’t have ACHD, you would have six road departments at each of the six cities, and then you would have a county road department. They may all have different standards for road building — different widths, different pavement structure — which is what you had before, and it didn’t work very well.
That’s one of the reasons ACHD was formed is people were not happy with the state of the roads. If you look a lot of the old roads in Boise, particularly in the North End, they were built without adequate sidewalks, built without adequate drainage, some of them are not wide enough.
If you drive through the North End, and I did that this weekend going down to the Hyde Park Street Fair, it’s frightening in places trying to get through when you have cars parked on both sides, and there’s effectively one travel lane left, so you’re weaving in and out.
That may work fine just for cars who are trying to get home or trying to get to an event or whatever, but what happens when you throw an emergency in there, and you have emergency vehicles that have to get through there? It doesn’t work very well.
So those standards didn’t work, and that’s one of the reasons that ACHD came to be is people wanted one agency that focused on the transportation system.
And that all makes sense, which leads me to wonder if that’s such a great idea, why hasn’t anybody else done it?
Rebecca Arnold: There are a lot of politics involved in that, I think. If you use Dave Bieter as an example, he wants control over his roads. I think that maybe applies to other jurisdictions; they want to maintain that control. They’re not willing to see that to someone else, so I think politics plays a part in that.
Funding issues that you brought up, the difference in levy rates between different agencies and highway districts, that probably plays a part as well. But an area where you have, and not to pick on Canyon County, I have some wonderful friends over there and I get along very well with the elected officials in Canyon County, but you have I think four separate highway districts in Canyon County, plus you have each city with its own street department.
I was astonished to find out how many different jurisdictions there were in Idaho that govern roads. There’s hundreds.
Rebecca Arnold: The reason being, each city has its own street department. And then each county, unincorporated counties, has their own road department, so they’re quite a number of agencies that deal with roads.
Have there been any studies of them?
Justin Lucas: I think the Urban Land Institute did a pretty significant look at at Ada County Highway District, its form and function, and delved into a lot of questions that have come up today, and it’s a really interesting report. It has been looked at, but I don’t know if there’s been an academic study, kind of looking at if other areas would want to incorporate the same model.
Regionalism isn’t solely an ACHD idea. There are other significant regional style governments, especially in transportation and other areas. Maybe not a highway district, but certainly when you look at public transportation, absolutely you have regional governments in some of those areas.
How do you balance yourself with Idaho Department of Transportation? Where do you draw the line in that?
Rebecca Arnold: We rely on ITD to provide the roadways for regional trips, and they have the regional system. The state highways through Ada County are all owned and controlled and managed by ITD.
When the state system isn’t adequate to handle the traffic, then it spills over into our roads, so we have invested interest in working with ITD to encourage them to improve key routes like Chinden for example, State Street, Highway 16. We’re working with ITD to encourage them to focus on those. There’s some plans in the works for that.
The other way we work with ITD, just to give you a good example, was the Cloverdale overpass. We had a pretty tragic event that took out that overpass. We worked cooperatively with ITD to fast track that and get that overpass completed, or almost complete, at least open within a year.
ACHD’s portion of that was significant because we own the approaches to it, so we made improvements to the approaches we put in — sidewalks, center turn lanes, bike lanes. That was a project that took a great deal of coordination to get it done, and IDT and ACHD worked together seamlessly to get that done.