My childhood love for public transit hasn't let up. As an adult, I'm the sort of person who considers transit to be as much tourist attraction as transportation mode; I was almost as excited last summer to finally get a chance to ride the Salt Lake TRAX light rail as I was to see Green Day in concert that same trip. In other words, you'd think that I'd be a huge fan of the Boise streetcar concept, and that I'd be devastated at yesterday's news that our city lost out on the federal grant that would've underwritten a good chunk of its cost.
Nope. If anything, I was rooting quietly for the grant application to fail. For one thing, I prefer the idea of starting with a north-south line to connect downtown with our cultural district and Boise State. But beyond that, I question whether we ought to be pursuing any sort of fixed-line streetcar service when our bus system is so insufficient. I was far more disappointed to learn that Valley Regional Transit lost out on a $26 million grant to improve local bus service than I was to hear that the streetcar funds fell through.
Of course, I am familiar with the main reason our bus system is so bad: Unlike most states, Idaho refuses to let local citizens decide whether to pay a little extra in sales tax to fund public transit. Idaho was one of only nine states to get entirely shut out of yesterday's transit grants. Pointing to the four cities (out of a dozen applicants) that got streetcar grants yesterday, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter noted to the Idaho Statesman that Tuscon, Portland, Dallas and New Orleans all have local option authority.
Alas, living as we do in a state where legislators refuse to give citizens local control, Boise now has to get creative. The Statesman had an excellent editorial on Sunday pointing out how the city - faced with a strong vote of support for local libraries that still fell short of the unreasonably high two-thirds majority required - found a way to build the branch libraries we so badly needed in this city.
The difference is that 57 percent of Boise voters supported branch libraries, while nowhere near that high a percentage supports the current streetcar plan. It will also cost a lot more money to bring the local transit system into the 21st century than it will to build a few libraries.
But we have to start somewhere, and the answer - for Boise - is not a fixed-line streetcar route. It's buses that run past 6 p.m., and on Sundays, and more than once an hour mid-day. It's buses that serve the growing populations of Eagle, Meridian and Kuna.
It's temporary trolley service that runs at times when people are already downtown and want to have fun: First Thursdays, for example, or Morrison Center concert nights. We all know how popular the Boise State football game-day trolleys are; why not expand that concept?
Let's look at creative marketing and schedule tweaks that makes bus riding cool and fun. For example, how about special service that would allow people to take a bus between downtown Boise, Towne Square Mall and the Idaho Center (and back again at 11 p.m.) for big concerts? How about keeping bus service available until 9 p.m. on summer Wednesdays for Alive After Five or running buses until midnight for 10 days during the Western Idaho Fair?
Valley Ride is strapped for cash, and these ideas would require public-private funding partnerships along the lines of those that were envisioned for the streetcar route. But Boise's compact, walkable downtown doesn't need a permanent 2.3-mile streetcar running east-west or north-south so much as it needs a way to help people travel to and from downtown to eat, drink, work, shop and have fun in the first place.
Update 10:30 a.m. February 18 ... Here are some other thoughts on Boise's transit situation (h/t Treasured Valley):
Randy Stapilus at Ridenbaugh Press
Kevin Richert at the Idaho Statesman