Thursday, February 18, 2010

Transit: It's time to get creative

I grew up riding the Port Authority Transit trolleys in Pittsburgh. Two separate streetcar lines ran between Bethel Park (the suburb where my family lived) and downtown. The trolleys took us to Pirates games, movies and concerts. Even after I got my driver's license, I realized that it was way cheaper to take the trolley to my downtown summer jobs than to drive.

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


Chris Blanchard said...

Julie: you are right about our transit needs. The TIGER funding provided a unique opportunity to build the one shovel ready project we had on the books - the downtown circulator. However, in the grand scheme of things that project is quite far down the list of needed transportation projects in the valley. The next interesting thing to watch is whether the Mayor and Council are willing to risk their careers on this. I suspect they are.

Julie Fanselow said...

Thanks for reading, Chris. I used "creative" in the headline for this post for a reason. I agree that a downtown circulator would be great at some point, but Idaho state government is so clueless on transit funding that we need to look well outside the political box - on the state OR federal level - to make this happen.

Our city leaders showed creativity and vision - and listened to people in the neighborhoods - in solving the branch libraries issue. So rather than risking their careers on something that's ill-suited to our present needs, I hope they'll use this as an excuse to try and creatively pair transit with economic development and support for our existing institutions and cultural attractions.

Jane Rohling said...

Great thoughts on the streetcar vs better bus service, Julie! Since I work from my home in Eagle, I don't go to downtown Boise much during the daytime, but I have thought I'd like to be able to ride the bus to and from special events--mostly at night or on weekends--like First Thursday, Art in the Park, the Western Idaho Fair, etc.

Julie Fanselow said...

The weekly email from mayor Dave Bieter has arrived. In it, he says,

"We are going to continue to explore ways to finance and build up the Boise Valley's transportation system, of which the streetcar is just one piece. One of the benefits of this week's decision is that it gives us the opportunity to broaden the exploration of the streetcar to learn if a north/south route from downtown to Boise State University, which has been on the drawing boards for years, would be feasible for phase one.

"The city will also continue to look for opportunities for federal assistance on the streetcar project. The Citizen Survey we conducted last year indicated that our residents' top two priorities are the economy and public transportation. The Boise Streetcar System is one of several initiatives the City has proposed to address both of these important issues."

By the way, you can sign up for the mayor's eMemo at

It is a quick read and worth getting.

Anonymous said...

At least from what I've read thus far, your citizens are very pro-active in the fight for better mass transit, same cannot be said for the majority ridership in my hometown (Birmingham, AL), what I wouldn't give to see some streetcars or some light rail around here, these people here, particularly the ones in positions of leadership and political prowess, are as myopic as some of the ones you all have had to deal with in Idaho...Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise, never was that statement more true as it relates to the city of Birmingham and the state of Alabama in matters of public transportation.

Anonymous said...

I like what you had to say about the statement the mass transit system in your city makes about how much you care about it, its' citizens and visitors and their transportation needs, if you were to visit Birmingham right now and decide you were going to use their transit system to get around, you would be sorely disappointed and made to feel most unwelcomed. One rule of thumb I adhere to whenever traveling to another state's main metro area is to learn about it mass transit system before embarking on my trip, to find out if I can depend on it to get where I need to go, or just stick to my car, & out of all of my travels and utilizing this practice, the city of Baltimore left me with the most indelible impression with their mass transit system, I spent my last day there just riding a light rail train around town prior to my plane flight out, and it was just magnificent and a whole lot of fun to boot, it was what I actually rode to the airport and it dropped me off less than 40 yards from the terminal entrance, talk about convenient, Birmingham's transit doesn't even take riders to its' airport, to me that's ridiculous. Our system's a joke, which is no less than to be expected, when this state's one of the 4 or 5 that will not reach out with transit funding, to me, it shows how ignorant, insensitive and deliberately oblivious state leaders are in Alabama when it comes to this issue (they'll ignore us about mass transit funding & rewriting the state constitution to change this year after yearb but they'll convene faster than you say "taxes" & vote themselves a pay raise) and when I read some of the items posted here about the situation in Boise, I see some frightening similarites to what's going down in Birmingham, here it seems to be all about their political careers and keeping their hands in the cookie jar at their leisure and our expense, they could care less about the average citizen (& you should hear or read some of the excuses they give to warrant their stands on non-provision of funding), especially the ones that depend on public transportation, on at least 2 separate occasions, the system in Birmingham was on the brink of total shutdown due to lack of operating capital, with the city having to bail them out, 3 or 4 million dollars at a time, not knowing from one quarter to the next if they'll even be able to continue, truth be told, perhaps this is what is needed in order to get something definitive and permanent done, nothing like humiliation to inspire you, eh?

Cities like Orlando have been laughing at Birmingham for years, and we've given them good reason to, have advocates in Boise tried to get their situation brought to a city or regional referendum? We tried that in 1998 (it was called MAPS, or Metro Area Planning Strategy), and the surrounding municipalities shot it full of holes at the polls. Lack of viable transit is one of several things that is killing the city of Birmingham, I hope the same fate doesn't befall a place as beautiful and potential-rich as Boise.

Anonymous said...

Someone here mentioned the TIGER grant thing, from what little information I could gather here, a similar attempt was made , and failed, what is the criteria for securing such a grant and why are some cities more successful at acquiring them than others, it's obvious that we're talking about two cities that are in dire need of better mass transit, and truth be told, if it were up to me to approve it for one of us, I would give the nod to Boise first, because it's obvious that it's more pro-active in this movement than Birmingham.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I was actually thinking about going to the mayor and telling him we should educate people about the bus system in schools and work seminars etc. and that we also need to put signs at all the stops in the nampa/caldwell area because i got stranded there when i couldn,t find any signs where they should've been. Another problem is that no one wants to take the bus. I had to literally drag my friends on there. We need to find ways to get some butts in those seats.