Circulator

Leaders hope massive expansion could increase bus usage 800%

  • Plan would revamp system across Ada & Canyon counties.
  • Feedback sought from public on concepts.
  • Funding an open question

The Boise area is booming. Crazy, faster-than-anywhere-else booming.

But transit service in the metro area is, to put it mildly - wanting.

If you’d like to get around without a car, your options are essentially your feet, a bike (as long snow isn't piled up in the bike lanes) or a limited bus system that doesn't run frequently enough for the tastes of many.

A ValleyRide bus turns on the Main Street in Boise last summer. If Valley Regional Transit autorities get their way, many more buses will roll down local streets.

A ValleyRide bus turns on the Main Street in Boise last summer. If Valley Regional Transit autorities get their way, many more buses will roll down local streets.

But the area's transit authority, Valley Regional Transit, wants to solve it.

The road ahead for the bus system could be complicated though.

VRT is asking for public feedback through March 15th on ValleyConnect 2.0 - a set of ambitious ideas to revamp and remake public transit in Ada and Canyon Counties.

"(One thing) we are trying to do with this plan is be more intentional about promoting transit as a vehicle toward freedom of movement.  So there is a kind of 'if you build it, they will come' mentality," VRT Principal Planner Stephen Hunt told BoiseDev. "The underlying core is helping people get to more places in less time at lower cost. "

The plan lays out three scenarios - do nothing, implement an intermediate plan or tackle the growth.

ALSO READ: 
Bigger than a streetcar. A vision for transit in 2040 

Where we stand

Presently, VRT spends about $10 million per year for its bus operations around the area. It spends $15 million on capital costs and improvements.

That money gets the public a somewhat-limited set of bus routes that don't operate on Sunday, don't run much past 7 p.m. and leave large swaths of land without easy access to a bus route.

Ridership is also declining. 

"If you take all our services in aggregate number - there has been a slight drop over the last several years," Hunt said.  The ridership dips follow a national pattern of declines in fixed-line service.

ValleyRide ridership

Data via Valley Regional Transit

The number of people using the bus in Ada County has been increasing however, with declines in less dense Canyon County bringing usage down on the whole.

VRT ridership compared to average gas prices. Data provided by VRT

VRT ridership compared to average gas prices. Data provided by VRT

VRT community relations manager Mark Carnopis attributes the ridership figures to a cyclical pattern with gas prices. When the pain at the pump increases, more people hoof it to the bus. When prices decline - folks opt for their cars.

But Carnopis and Hunt note the cost of using a private vehicle can add up.

VRT number crunchers say the average Treasure Valley household spends $6,400 per year on their car or cars - for things like gas, taxes and insurance (not including the car itself). Over a year, that adds up to $1.5 billion per year at scale.

"If you ask someone who is used to driving around to use transit, they are going to experience this loss of 99% of their freedom," Carnopis said. "But - transit doesn’t come early enough, late enough, often enough on the weekend.  It’s all limited because of transit operation spending."

Map shows current network. Via Valley Regional Transit. Click to enlarge.

Where VRT hopes to go

bdev-vrt.png

 

If the numbers hold true and $1.5 billion is coming from consumers' pockets to use their car - VRT hopes folks will see proposed plans to expand bus system as affordable in comparison.

And the goal that goes along with the plan is big.

"Our target is to increase ridership 800% - that’s kind of a big number," Hunt said.

With as much as a 400% increase in service, an 800% increase in usage would in theory make each dollar more efficient than the current set up.  

Two proposals are outlined in ValleyConnect 2.0.  

Intermediate

The first would double the current operating cost to $20 million per year. That would in turn amp up service hours - also doubling to 200,000 per year.  The scenario would pour $98 million into capital costs, which includes taking care of $23 million in deferred projects.

Here's what the extra cash would buy:

  • Increased service
    • All-day frequency to every 15 minutes on major transit corridors
    • Run all routes until 8 p.m., with "many past 9 p.m." on weekdays
    • Increase Saturday service from four routes to six
  • Expand fleet of buses and build up infrastructure
  • Focus on 40 miles of "premium high-frequency" corridors.
  • Upgrade passenger amenities
    • New or expanded transit centers, park & ride lots and "real-time passenger information."
  • Invest in tech to help coordinate specialized transportation - like vanpool, carpool, bike-share, parking and buses. 

Map shows proposed Intermediate network. Via Valley Regional Transit. Click to enlarge.

Growth

This plan is even more aggressive. It would quadruple current spending to $40 million, which would also quadruple the number of service hours to 400,000.  It would put in $191 million in capital upgrades.

For the growth plan, here's what the dollars would fund:

  • Increased service
    • All-day frequency to every 15 minutes "expansive transit network"
    • Add connections through Meridian and central part of two-county region
    • New inter-county connections to Boise Airport and Micron Technology campus
    • Run all service until 9 p.m. with most service until 10 p.m. weekdays
    • Increase Saturday service from four routes to 11.
    • Add first-ever Sunday service on eight routes.
  • Expand fleet of buses and build up infrastructure
  • Focus on 100 miles of "premium high-frequency" corridors.
  • Upgrade passenger amenities
    • New or expanded transit centers, park & ride lots and "real-time passenger information."

“The intermediate and growth scenarios are aggressive plans for growth that will dramatically improve transit service by connecting more people to more places, more often," report authors wrote.

Map shows proposed Growth network. Via Valley Regional Transit. Click to enlarge.

Big rail, small rail

A RegioSprinter train like this one rolled down the tracks of the Treasure Valley as a test in 1997 for ten days. Photo via  Alupus  

A RegioSprinter train like this one rolled down the tracks of the Treasure Valley as a test in 1997 for ten days. Photo via Alupus 

In 1997, then-Boise Mayor Brent Coles spearheaded an effort to consider rail in the transit mix for the Valley.  A ten-day trial brought passenger rail service from the Boise Depot with Idaho Center, with stops at the Boise Towne Square and elsewhere. More than 18,000 residents hopped aboard for the test. But the plan went nowhere and has not been a visible priority for Coles' eventual successor David Bieter - with a decade-long push for a downtown Boise circulator taking precedence. 

ValleyConnect does not specifically plan for use of the existing rail line that runs in the population center from Micron on the east through Nampa in the west, but does advocate building a system that orients to the possibility of using the rail line for passenger trains at some point in the future.

The Growth plan would put about 45,000 hours of service along I-84. If leaders instituted a rail service, those buses could be redirected off the freeway, providing even more service in neighborhoods. 

Rendering of possible Boise circulator. Courtesy City of Boise.

Rendering of possible Boise circulator. Courtesy City of Boise.

The plan doesn't, however, mention the idea from City of Boise leaders to build a $100-million streetcar that covers Downtown Boise and Boise State University.

"The Circulator is a City of Boise project," Hunt said. "That is something the city is pursuing on its own."

With VRT working to tie all forms of non-car transit together, would it make sense to be involved in the Circulator plan?

"The ball is in their (City of Boise’s) court for that," Carnopis said. "We are available and we could talk. We would be happy to help them on that."

The estimated cost to build a streetcar in Downtown Boise is $73.4 million according to an analysis from Leland Consulting. That compares to a $98 million capital investment for VRT's "Intermediate" concept which would operate across both counties.

Where will the cash come from?

Donald Trump won Ada County by nine points.

He took Canyon County by nearly 23 points.

Across Idaho, he won by 31 points.

There is little reason to believe that negative legislative attitudes... will change any time soon
— Dr. Jim Weatherby

While the metro area may be becoming increasingly progressive - and though Boise has a democratic mayor and several democratic representatives in the state legislature, the state as a whole is still very conservative.

Any group that proposes to spend more than $200 million in public money is going to face an uphill battle.

"We felt that it was important to lead with the public on an aspirational plan on what this could mean for the Valley," Hunt said. "There’s been a pretty consistent effort to get funding authority."

The idea to put forth a local option tax is one Treasure Valley leaders have been hoping for for quite some time. But longtime Idaho political analyst Dr. Jim Weatherby says this path isn't easy.

"There is little reason to believe that negative legislative attitudes toward a feared patchwork of new local taxes and rural hostility toward granting local option to Idaho’s larger cities will change any time soon," Weatherby said.

He notes that proposals have popped up for more than 40 years in the legislature - and outside of some exemptions for resort cities and auditorium districts, local option taxes haven't been a popular notion with legislators.

Carnopis says his agency just wants the ability to let voters decide.

 "Give us the ability to take a referendum to the people, through our role to educate," he said. "We are not asking for taxation without representation"

"A vision without a plan is just a dream," Hunt said. "A plan without funding is hallucination."

Old trolley tracks unearthed during downtown road work

Heap of history. Courtesy Jonah Shue.

Heap of history. Courtesy Jonah Shue.

Ada County Highway District crews are doing some roadwork in the area of 16th and State St. in the North End - and unearthed a giant pile of metal beams.

Courtesy Boise State University

Courtesy Boise State University

Turns out, according to ACHD spokesperson Nicole Du Bois, the metal is from old trolley tracks that once ran along State Street. The tracks are likely more than 100 years old - part of a trolley system that rolled through downtown Boise in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

The trolley system around the Downtown Boise core and out State St. and Warm Springs Ave. stretched more than seven miles, according to a paper from Boise State University.  The project got going in the 1890s but sputtered to a stop nearly 90 years ago:

May 17, 1928 marked the official end of the trolley era. At 6:00pm the trolleys were taken to the storage barn, the few remaining patrons were given bus schedules, as they had now replaced the trolley line. Sadly, little sorrow from the public accompanied the close of the trolleys. People had long been complaining about poor service, bumpy rides, and unsightly cracked pavement around the tracks. However, for the few that faithfully rode the trolleys, the engineers and conductors who maintained and ran them, it was the end of an era.

The City of Boise hopes to startup its own $100-million trolley system in coming years that would again ride the streets of Downtown Boise.  The project is technically approved by Boise City Council, but a funding source has not yet been identified. The city has identified $3.5 million in tax dollars to start work on the project.

ACHD is replacing a bridge over a culvert in the area, and will wrap up work in mid-February.

Boise to spend $3.5 million to steam ahead on downtown rail plan

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 11.40.51 AM.png

UPDATE: A prior version of this story used different budget figures provided to BoiseDev by the City of Boise and confirmed on a CCDC document. Story updated with latest information.

The City of Boise and Capital City Development Corporation are preparing to put public money toward the vision for a fixed-rail streetcar in Downtown Boise.

During a Monday meeting, the CCDC proposed to spend $2.3 million during the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years - which would be partially matched by $1.2 million coming from the City of Boise's general fund - for a total of more than $3.5 million of public tax dollars.

The money would be used for engineering of the roughly 5-mile streetcar line - and is only the first step in a project that could cost well more than $100 million if built.

Despite mixed public feedback and a circulator committee that did not advocate specifically for rail, Boise City Council in April voted to move forward with the fixed-rail concept.

The City has a request for qualifications out for "professional services consultant... focusing on advancing the Downtown Boise Circulator project." Two firms responded and a final award has not yet been made, according to public records.

City of Boise Communications Director Mike Journee said the city is currently working to put together financing on the rail project - which could include federal dollars.

"We are in the pre-application phase," he said. "We are working with consultants and others to understand our financing and understanding and we can enter into a small starts grant program," he said.

Journee said that while the City Council advocated for fixed-rail, city staffers are also looking at potential ideas like autonomous vehicles. 

"(Staff are working to) Identify and evaluate areas of concern and potential challenges and monitor and explore emerging technologies," he said.

One member of the city's circulator steering committee and prominent Downtown Boise developer Clay Carley told BoiseDev earlier this summer he is not in favor of a rail-based solution - and would rally his peers to "vote against" any such effort. He instead advocated for an autonomous bus or similar solution.

In its RFQ, obtained by BoiseDev, the City is asking for firms to assist with:

  • Assisting the City in developing a local funding plan which include a local funding portfolio which may include local improvement districts, Tax increment financing, institutional partnerships and others opportunities
  • Identifying Federal grant opportunities with particular expertise in Federal Transit Administrations grants and TIGER expertise
  • Identifying and evaluating emerging technologies
  • Ridership estimates
  • Economic activity estimates
  • Developing construction cost estimates
  • Developing operation and maintenance estimates
  • Developing short term and long term schedules and plans

What's next?

For the City of Boise, Journee says the public feedback window has for now closed - and that the City Council has approved the rail plan. A process over one-to-two years will play out that includes the funding piece. 

The public has a chance to attend a public hearing for the Capital City Development Corporation on Tuesday August 29th at noon to weigh in on the budget outlay.  

Any final say on a fixed-rail streetcar ultimately lies with the Ada County Highway District, which controls the right-of-way for all streets in the county.  

Developer and others: Boise Circulator should skip rail and go driverless

Autonomous electric bus, Courtesy Protera.

Autonomous electric bus, Courtesy Protera.

Should Boise invest in a transportation mode out of the past - or look to the future for options? It’s a question being asked by members of the City’s Circulator Analysis steering committee.

BoiseDev.com reached out to each member of the group in May for comment on the process — and of those who replied, a recurring theme emerged: the need to investigate a driverless bus system.

Just a few years ago, such an idea might have seemed futuristic and farcical - but it’s a concept that is growing in traction.

In Helsinki Finland, the RoboBusLine has been promoted from trial to full-time service.  The electric-powered vehicles carry folks along a fixed route - traveling at about 7 miles per hour.  For now, each bus has a driver on board in case of emergencies - but that could change over time.  

This 3D printed bus is known as Olli, and is already on the streets of Washington, DC. Photo courtesy Local Motors.

This 3D printed bus is known as Olli, and is already on the streets of Washington, DC. Photo courtesy Local Motors.

In Washington, DC - two futuristic technologies have come together - with a driverless 3D-printed bus roaming the streets. Olli, as it is called, has places for twelve people and is built by Arizona-based Local Motors. Unlike the fixed-route example in Finland, Olli can be summoned with an app much like Uber.

Just across Idaho’s southern border, Reno is testing a fleet of electric driverless buses from a company known as Proterra. These buses look similar to traditional human-driven coaches, and for now will still have a driver in place as backup.  They can travel 600 miles on a charge - and can hold dozens of passengers.

If Helsinki, Washington and even Reno can do it — why not Boise?

Prominent Downtown Boise developer Clay Carley raised the concept to BoiseDev.

“Autonomous vehicles are sexy and inviting,” Carley said. “They have very low initial cost and low cost to operate and maintain.”

Carley notes that such systems aren’t quite ready for primetime, but could be ready to in the three to five-year timeframe that Boise will need to attain funding.

The current idea bouncing around the City of Boise would rely at least in part on overhead catenary systems — basically wires hanging over a rail route, snaking along the street where the streetcar might travel.

Carley says he’s not in favor of such a system.

“If we choose that path, by the time we get done it would be an antiquated system,” he said. “I’m not for that, I think it would be a mistake.”

He says an autonomous bus concept would have lower initial cost and lower ongoing cost than a spendy train concept.  

If it is $120 million for a rail system, I would vote no - and I would rally other business owners to vote no
— Clay Carley, Boise developer

Carley owns a number of properties along the proposed circulator line - including The Owyhee, many of the buildings in Old Boise and others.  If a local improvement district is established to help pay for the system - business owners like Carley will be called upon to pay for it.

“If it is $120 million for a rail system, I would vote no - and I would rally other business owners to vote no,” he said. “That affordability factor is crucial - and I don’t see it happening with a rail car the way it’s happening thus far.”

He says that such a system would need a sense of permanency - with stations, stops and possibly even a contract.

Carley's The Owyhee sits on a proposed Boise circulator route. One funding option mentioned by the City of Boise is a local improvement district, which would assess an extra tax for properties on the line like this one. Photo courtesy The Owyhee.

Carley's The Owyhee sits on a proposed Boise circulator route. One funding option mentioned by the City of Boise is a local improvement district, which would assess an extra tax for properties on the line like this one. Photo courtesy The Owyhee.

“I’m a property owner that would be on the route and I’d be more inclined to develop if an autonomous vehicle was going up and down that route for a contract 20 years.”

Architect Gregory Kaslo, who was also on the Circulator steering committee, brought up the self-driving idea last year as well.

“This is a perfect transportation ‘problem’ begging for a self-driving shuttle solution,” he wrote.  “If established, the feedback loop of fixed route, fixed stops and predictable demand would help the design of a responsive economical transportation network.”

ACHD Commissioner Sara Baker thinks that an autonomous bus route should be given more thought.

“It's an intriguing concept and one that should be explored in depth,” she said. “In the interim, partnering with BSU and their shuttle is a good way to go.”

The Boise State Shuttle has two routes during the school year which run every fifteen minutes between campus and downtown. Photo courtesy Boise State.  

The Boise State Shuttle has two routes during the school year which run every fifteen minutes between campus and downtown. Photo courtesy Boise State.  

The Boise State shuttle runs frequently from the campus to stops near Bodo and at City Center Plaza on Main St. - and is often packed with students.  The project is paid for out of student fees.

“The BSU shuttle, which runs on much the same route (as the circulator), is available to anyone, not just BSU students, and it runs frequently throughout the day,” Baker said. “If the circulator concept is the end goal, then the city should investigate partnering with BSU rather than reinventing the wheel.”

Baker said she felt the City’s end goal is a fixed-rail streetcar, but emphasized that the steering group didn’t actually endorse it.

“I think it was obvious the goal on the part of the city was a fixed streetcar,” she said. “Rather, the route was endorsed but mode of transit was left open as was the need for the public's approval.”

IMG_9272.PNG

In the material put in front of Boise City Council before a vote on the circulator proposal last month, city staff emphasized an older focus group from 2014.  That group was a pre-selected batch of decision makers, and 54% favored rail.  The agenda packet provided to Boise City Council before its decision did not include the result of a more recent March Open House on the circulator which showed public opinion is mixed on mode between bus and rail according to documents obtained via a public records request by BoiseDev.  At least one media story also showed a different survey, making support for rail seem more robust than the most recent feedback opportunity showed.

Baker’s ACHD colleague Jim Hansen hopes that some type of solution can be brought into reality - though he didn’t advocate a specific idea in an interview by email. 

“Urban areas that offer real transportation choices are better positioned to meet market demands in the future,” he said. “If we don’t invest in those choices today, we end up building more and more limited mode infrastructure that does not trigger private investment and ends up costing future taxpayers too much to maintain. 

He also criticized his own agency.

“The challenge in our area is that the one local government entity in Ada County that is empowered to invest property taxes in transportation (ACHD) has chosen not to invest very much in transportation choices.”

I think it was obvious the goal on the part of the city was a fixed streetcar
— Sara Baker, ACHD Commisioner

Local entrepreneur Jeff Reynolds works downtown and recently purchased a home near the city center.  He also thinks Boise would be well-served to look at autonomous bus solutions to the downtown transportation challenge.

“The City seems to only be seriously considering a rail-based system, even as we sit on the precipice an autonomous vehicle revolution,” Reynolds said. “Instead of rail, the City should seriously consider an autonomous vehicle circulator — dedicated lanes that allow self-driving buses and cars to move swiftly through downtown and beyond."

Carley agrees.

“I think there’s a better solution on the horizon and we just can’t see it yet,” he said. “It has to be affordable, and it has to be fixed, and it has to be smart, and I don’t think rail is in the ground is very smart.”

While Boise Mayor Dave Bieter told the circulator committee that his “preference is for a fixed rail system," his spokesperson said he is open to the role autonomous vehicles could play in Boise’s transit system  

“The mayor and others involved in developing TAP (Transportation Action Plan) have been thinking about autonomous vehicles and their place in the mix,” City of Boise spokesperson Mike Journee said.

BoiseDev in-depth: Boise Circulator:

Trump & transit: How will Federal shifts affect Boise's Circulator idea?

For a Boise streetcar or bus circulator project to happen, city leaders are clear it will need a healthy dose of Federal funding. But with significant cutbacks to the Transportation Department proposed by the Trump administration - will it throw the brakes on a circulator before it ever even gets moving?

President Donald Trump's administration outlines a cut to nearly every federal department outside of defense and veteran's affairs - and that includes a 17% hit to the US Department of Transportation.

The proposal would slice $2.4 billion out of the cash pile dedicated to moving Americans in the coming budget year.

"The Budget reduces or eliminates programs that are either inefficient, duplicative of other Federal efforts, or that involve activities that are better delivered by States, localities, or the private sector," the budget document notes according to The Hill.

The Boise Circulator Alternatives Analysis proposes a number of potential funding sources - including a local improvement district, parking revenue, Boise State student fees and other ideas.

During an extensive conversation with BoiseDev in December, City of Boise circulator project manager James Pardy said that federal funding would likely play a key role.

"We would expect more funding opportunity from the federal government on a more expensive system," he said. 

In documents obtained by BoiseDev, City of Boise officials cited two likely funding sources from the Federal government - a pair of grant programs known as Small Starts and TIGER.

But the Trump budget specifically notes that, in its view, municipalities should figure out how to fund programs on their own.

“Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” according to Trump’s spending plan.

The budget plan slices both Small Starts (and its sister program New Starts), as well as TIGER grants.

The budget has not yet been approved by congress - and could come out in a significantly different final form.  

City of Boise Director of Communications Mike Journee says the city is progressing, for now, as though everything is status quo.

"We are aware of and are watching the potentially shifting federal funding picture," he wrote in an email to BoiseDev. "However, the process as it exists now is what we have to work with, so we will continue in that vein until we know different."

He says the Alternatives Analysis process is about finding answers to questions big and small on the project - including funding. 

 "This whole process has been about assessing and defining what's possible and that will not change going forward, no matter what happens at the federal level. We envision that, over the next 18 months, we will really dig into the funding question both locally and at the federal level."

During a meeting with CEOs Tuesday, Trump said his forthcoming $1 trillion infrastructure plan will focus exclusively on "shovel ready" projects -- those that could get going right away.

“If you have a job that you can’t start within 90 days, we’re not going to give you the money for it,” he said according to MarketWatch.  That bill could be introduced this year, and include $100 billion-$200 billion in federal funds as well as offsetting tax credits - with the full $1 trillion spread over ten years.

 Details on what types of projects could be qualified haven't yet been detailed - though reporting from McClatchy in January outlined 50 "priority" projects. The list detailed no projects in Idaho - and primarily focused on roads and bridges. Six "mass transit" projects were included - including expansion of the NYC subway and expansion of rail lines in major metros areas like Boston and Detroit. No municpal streetcar projects were included - though it's unclear what types of projects beyond the top 50 could be funded or how the process might work.

Circulator open house: mixed reactions

BoiseDev has obtained a summary of the comments received during an open house for a circulator from Boise State through Downtown Boise.

The reaction from those attended was decidedly mixed - with some leaving emphatic comments in favor of a fixed-rail circulator, but at least as many leaving comments preferring something else.  There is no clear consensus in the public opinion collected on Tuesday - though in general respondents are in favor of some type of circulator.

Eight comments specifically said they supported a streetcar - but interestingly, eight people also explicitly named buses or were against rail.

In all, 45 comment cards were filled out.  The City of Boise's analysis passed to circulator committee members said there were 44 comments - but there are 45 listed. Here's how the comments broke down:

  • Generally supportive of a circulator, no mode mentioned: 14 comments 
  • Supportive of a streetcar: 8 comments
  • Supportive of bus options or against rail: 8 comments
  • Supportive of either bus or streetcar: 1 comment
  • Opposed to project: 5 comments
  • Mixed opinion: 1 comment
  • Other: 8 comments

See the comments for yourself:

  • Generally supportive - 14 replies
    • Like it. Add line to Vista and Airport.
    • This is Awesome.  Hope it goes through.
    • We need this.
    • I like that this mode of transportation is more efficient and provides younger and older people with more transportation.
    • Great way to get around downtown and more revenue for business.
    • Make it happen, make it high frequency, make it expandable.
    • I’m in support.
    • Looks great, can’t wait.
    • Looks good.  We need local option.
    • Support the concept and project.
    • Move Forward.
    • Great love it.  Like to see it coupled with all transit services.
    • Great stuff.
    • Couldn’t be happier with this news.  Like to see more but realize need to start somewhere.
  • Supportive of a streetcar - 8 replies
    • I support the streetcar to facilitate development towards the river.
    • Very excited, prefer the street car.  Regional connectivity is key.
    • Streetcar would be fantastic addition to downtown.  Also better bike lanes.
    • Go rail, support 100%.  Boise needs a seamless transportation system so sustain quality of life, needs to start now.
    • More streetcars the better.
    • Like the streetcar. Update plan to reflect changes in downtown (i.e. go out towards CWI).
    • Like the project prefer street car.
    • Go for the rail.
  • Supportive of bus options or against rail - 8 replies
    • Like the “T” route, consider rubber tire as proof of concept.
    • Circulator can be a new bus route and should connect downtown to all libraries.
    • Would the money be better spent on improving current bus system?
    • Expand and build the existing bus system instead.
    • Better bus service makes more sense. Rather see a real transit system.
    • Insane expense, waste of tax payer money.  Ridership will be minimal. Increase use of buses.
    • Thanks for getting the discussion going.  Keep options open.  Rubber tire is more flexible and cost effective.
    • Pursue new technology not rail.
  • Supportive of bus or streetcar - 1 reply
    • Really like the streetcar option. Bus would work though.
  • Mixed opinion - 1 reply
    • Love the idea but fear the cost.
  • Opposed to project - 5 replies
    • Would rather see money spent on regional transportation.  Downtown circulator is a waste of tax money.
    • Way too expensive for small increase in ridership.
    • We DO NOT need the Trolley to Nowhere, or the Circulator.  What we need is transit (rail) from Caldwell/Nampa and Meridian/Eagle to Boise.  We've needed it for a long time.  Please focus your efforts there! – Via email.
    • What part of no don’t you get?
    • Who is going to use it, how are you going to pay for it? Taxes are killing us! Downtown parking is ridiculous.
  • Other comments - 8 replies
    • Love it, I want to support the TAP.
    • Make the loop larger to serve more area.
    • Thanks for including BSU in the planning effort.
    • Very interested in the new alternative and the economic develop it could bring.
    • Thanks for all you do to make this the best city in America.
    • Want to learn more about the economic development.
    • Excited to see this at Treefort and feel this in greatly needed to reduce cars.  Make it free.
    • Add a stop at the corner by the Morrison Center. 

Boise's circulator open house: what you missed

The City of Boise held an open house Tuesday for its idea to build a circulator route linking Boise State and Downtown Boise.

BoiseDev did an in-depth analysis on the project late last year.

Above you can see the material presented to the public.

Members of the media covered the open house. The only reporter that got public reaction that I could find was from KTVB's Natalie Shaver:

"Parking can be a little brutal so I'm all about the public transit," said Shelley Coleman.

"We're all coming to work downtown, a lot of us live downtown, why take up space in the parking garage that people who are coming from out of town could use," said Andrew Willden.

"It's so small in Boise, I mean the stops are so close together you can pretty much walk there before you can get on a bus and get off a bus," said Jefferey Trudick.

Boise Weekly also did a story but only talked to officials.

 

 

Bigger than a streetcar: An idea on transit for 2040

News analysis by Don Day
BoiseDev.com

Comments are enabled at the bottom if you'd like to chip in your thoughts

I'm not a transportation planner. It's hard work, complicated - and a surefire way to have people question your ideas.

But, like any citizen who pays attention, I have some ideas.

Boise's city leaders have been working on a streetcar idea for nearly a decade. The response from citizens has been, for the most part, tepid. But the idea remains.

In my long piece on the streetcar late last year, the mayor's spokesperson made a point that has stuck with me.

"There’s a practical side of this," Mike Journee said. "What is our traffic situation going to look like in 2040?"

I lived in Seattle for just long enough to understand what traffic is. Sitting, not moving, wishing-you-had-a-bathroom-in-your-car traffic.

Boise, of course, doesn't really have much traffic.  Sure, the Interstate chokes up with accidents and can be slow in the average commute.  Front Street through downtown is a slow, cloggy mess many evenings. Leaving a Boise State game can be slow.

On the whole, however - it's pretty easy to get around.

But what about in 2040?

Downtown isn't really a problem child for traffic.  You can pretty easily jaywalk any of the streets most of the day and evening (not that anyone I know does that). 

The streetcar is expensive. Really, really expensive.  After my story was published, a local elected official told me off the record that it would "never happen," and dismissed the project as folly.  

As I talked with Journee and streetcar project manager Jim Pardy, I told them they lay out a convincing case. And for the most part, they do. But it's very hard to get past the cost, and the relative lack of need for a train that goes in a fairly walkable circle.

Boise's buses, on the other hand, currently are underused.  They don't run on Sundays, holidays, or even very late into the evening.  The streetcar would run more frequently if built, but it would be a strong link in a weak bus system. If I live anywhere but downtown and don't own a car, I'm going to be stuck without an option other than my own two feet and their ability to walk or peddle a bike.

COMPASS even somewhat-confusingly touted a stat that points out the problem: 80% of Treasure Valley residents aren't within walking distance of a bus.

I asked the City of Boise pair why a streetcar and not the "Micron to Caldwell" rail line. 

“We are kind of doing it backwards," Pardy said candidly. "This is kind of like building the last mile first.  This could be a catalyst to get the entire region."

Twenty years ago, then-mayor Brent Coles spearheaded a trial of a train from Micron to Caldwell on those existing Union Pacific tracks. Temporary stations were set up, and people could ride the rails to commute.  

Why not do this now? Start here and connect from it.  The Boise Depot is the historic icon of transit in SW Idaho - and it still stands in a pivotal position.

Imagine this idea:

  • Use the existing Union Pacific tracks (GREEN) to run commuter trains between the Boise Factory Outlet area near Micron and Caldwell.  Some additional infrastructure would be needed - stops, park-and-ride lots and the like. You could have stops at the Boise Towne Square, a few blocks from Saint Alphonsus, near St Luke's Meridian, Downtown Meridian, the Idaho Center, Downtown Nampa and Downtown Caldwell. And of course the Boise Depot.  The existing UP track run right through the backyard of many of our area's biggest hubs.
  • Build a streetcar or bus circulator between the Boise Depot and the Idaho Statehouse (RED). It would pass by Boise State, the new multi-modal transit center, city hall, City Center Plaza and within a few easy walking blocks of Simplot, JUMP, Zions Bank and dozens of other buildings. It would give the city the downtown catalyst project and accomplish most of the streetcar project, but would be knitted into a larger system.
  • Existing talks are underway to do something along State Street.  Maybe those talks should produce a high-frequency bus route that comes around every 10-15 minutes and goes from the end of that new streetcar line at the Idaho Statehouse, out to Eagle Rd. and meets back up with the UP tracks near St. Luke's Meridian (BLUE).  The route could also go east from the Statehouse and zip by St. Luke's Boise, up Broadway by Albertsons Stadium and connect to the transit center at Boise State.
  • Take that same idea and connect a high-frequency bus route from the Boise Airport to the Boise Depot.

With a fleet of buses, passenger trains, and vision - you could put together a dynamic, thriving system that connects nearly every big thing in the valley.  The hospitals, the arenas, the major employers, the mall, the Village at Meridian, the airport and more.

Bring it all together under a common, smart brand and you have a uniting concept.

I also asked about how the city viewed driverless cars. It doesn't seem like this is something that is in their calculation - but it could change everything. (Why own a car at all when you can push a button and a robot can pick you up with a minute or two?)

As I reported in my streetcar deep dive, Bieter said choosing a rail-focused system over buses came down to one thing. 

"I believe everything in this process boils down to our vision for this community. In my mind, that means we build a streetcar."

Pardy likened the streetcar to a loved Boise treasure. 

"At one point someone had the vision to build the Greenbelt," he said.

The mayor has his vision, and he has every right to work on it as he sees fit - he's been elected to his spot three times, and we live in a representative democracy.

But maybe a different vision could make sense.  The great thing about the Boise River Greenbelt example is that it runs from Lucky Peak to beyond Eagle - and is a source of pride for everyone regardless of which city they call home.  Any transit system should have a similar Big Idea with an eye on 2040 - and serve as many people as possible.

"T" for transit: Decision made on Boise streetcar; inside the push to make it a reality

Boise's mayor has wanted a streetcar to roll its way through Downtown Boise for a long time. In 2008, he proclaimed in his State of the City address that the city should build one. Now in 2017, will it happen? A new push is coming.