Our View: Downtown Boise streetcar worth a look

January 17, 2014 

Once again there is a desire for a streetcar, or a bus — or something else that can move or “circulate” people around Downtown Boise and possibly to and from a few outlying neighborhoods.

So far, the citizenry has not been moved to go in that direction. This time, city leaders aren’t going anywhere until they host an open house on the idea from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at City Hall.

We applaud the tact of getting input from citizens at the very beginning of the process and not laying track or planning routes until the people weigh in.

Further, we appreciate that plenty has happened to the Downtown landscape since the trolley misadventures of six years ago, when the venture had government-to-the-people steam but no popular traction.

To the good, we can envision folks in the Downtown core, for example, launching out at lunchtime on a route that passes by BoDo, Trader Joe’s, JUMP, WinCo and Whole Foods — as well as making stops in the vicinity of the post office, residential areas, the Greenbelt, and possibly medical and educational facilities as far away as Boise State University. Perhaps there’s another route coming in from Hyde Park, or following Fort Street past the Co-Op and then the various medical and veterans facilities on its way to the Capitol.

It’s tough to imagine a venture succeeding that doesn’t connect a decent radius of neighborhoods, services and commerce.

Though we could be talking about a bus or streetcar, some older studies indicate that a “fixed” transportation service such as a streetcar is best received by developers, who like the permanence, and by transit customers, who like the novelty and capacity (80 to 90 people, about double a bus for certain models).

The trouble is, streetcars have expensive front-end costs (laying track) that would include a lot more than redesigning and redeploying a dedicated bus or two. But can Boise get excited about buses disguised with fresh paint and jazzy logos?

One doesn’t have to travel far to observe streetcars in action in Portland and Salt Lake City — most of which are integrated into comprehensive transit systems. The $55 million Salt Lake S-line Streetcar is only a couple of miles long and has seven stations, making connections between Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake, transporting folks to and from neighborhoods and commercial districts (www.rideuta.com).

The Portland Streetcar has lines and stops on both sides of the Willamette River downtown waterfront: the Central Loop line and the North South Line. Though development came to the streetcar neighborhoods, it was sweetened by subsidies (www.portlandstreetcar.org).

Another issue for Boise is getting clearance, cooperation and coordination from a host of other initiatives and agencies that will have to get involved: the Ada County Highway District and Valley Regional Transit, and a potential private partner, Gardner Co., which soon might be engaged in developing the Downtown Boise Multimodal Center as part of a mixed-use project near Capitol and Main.

But that’s what about $500,000 in study dollars and city staff time can get to work on as planners develop cost estimates for a “circulator” route. Those facts, combined with the open house preferences of riders and the business community, just might allow this idea to leave the station in a year or two.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.

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