Transit lessons from Utah

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A Valley Rides bus. Without local option taxing authority, public transit is primarily funded by cities. File photo.

If public transit is to improve in the Treasure Valley, business must get involved soon, according to the executive who helped improve that service in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley.

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Steve Meyer spoke at Compass about how Utah funded and improved its public transit system. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

“If you wait for the disaster to occur, it will cost so much more to build,” said Steve Meyer, interim executive director for the Utah Transit Authority. He spoke on June 6 at the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS), the metropolitan planning organization for the Treasure Valley that coordinates regional transit planning.

Acquiring land for transit is less expensive when the land is being used for farming, not homes, Meyer said. It took Salt Lake City a couple of decades to build transit, and Boise is about 30 years behind Salt Lake City in development, he said, meaning the region doesn’t have much time.

Business leaders must encourage elected officials to provide a funding source for public transit, said attendee Jim Hansen, Ada County Highway District commissioner for District 1, which covers Southeast Boise as far west as Cole Road. “We have plans. We have corridors.” But without funding, those plans can’t be realized, he said.

Surveys have found Treasure Valley residents would like more public transit options. A more recent survey from the highway district, however, found people on the eastern end of Ada County were more interested in public transit, while people on the western end were more interested in nonspecific “reducing congestion.”

The 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. In most regions, that dedicated funding source is a local option tax, where citizens vote to raise taxes for building and maintaining projects such as transit. Advocates for a local option tax in Idaho cities and towns have tried for more than ten years in the Legislature to gain taxing authority. Resort cities such as Sandpoint and Ketchum with populations smaller than 10,000  – 14 in all – are the only ones with local option taxing authority. Surveys have also found that Idaho citizens are in favor of providing that local control.

Without local option taxing authority, public transit systems such as Valley Regional Transit are funded primarily by operators asking for funding from the cities. Other potential funding sources include congestion pricing, transit-oriented development, and assessment districts, Meyer said. Looking for a solution that offers something for everybody, as Idaho did when implementing Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (GARVEE) funding for highways, might be helpful, he said.

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Alex LaBeau
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Jim Hansen

The business community’s interest in the issue is less clear. The Idaho Chamber Alliance, which represents Idaho Chambers of Commerce, supports local option sales tax authority for city and county officials for infrastructure needs, said John Watts, a lobbyist for the organization from Boise-based Veritas Advisors.

The Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry has no specific position on transit itself, said Alex LaBeau, president of the Boise-based business lobby group. “We have talked in Idaho for a long time about local option, but we would like sideboards, and there has not been legislation to provide that, nor any negotiation,” he said. These sideboards could include aggregate countywide caps, a supermajority vote, a specific purpose such as transportation, a sunset date, and a commitment to vote only on General Election dates, he said.

St. Luke’s Health System, based in downtown Boise but with locations throughout the Treasure Valley, is interested in helping to provide “first mile/last mile” solutions to get people between transit and their eventual destinations, said Eric Selekof, wellness coordinator and employee transportation coordinator for the organization, who attended the meeting. In fact, the organization already contributes to that effort through its bike hubs and “park once” systems that encourage staffers to take alternative transportation once they arrive at the office for the day. But he was unsure whether the organization would support local option taxing authority or an expansion of public transit within the Treasure Valley. “That’s above my pay grade,” he said.