State Street is going to test the city of Boise’s transportation philosophy.
The federal government has put its money behind that philosophy with a $279,000 grant to prepare State Street for better public transportation, such as a bus rapid transit system that Valley Regional Transit hopes to install someday on State Street and other major corridors. The city added $100,000 of its own money for the same effort.
The grant is for studying purposes only. There’s no firm estimate of when the rapid transit system might become a reality, Valley Regional Transit spokesman Mark Carnopis said. If it takes shape, it could revolutionize the State Street commute, by far the most popular bus route in the transit authority’s system.
Traffic on part of State Street is close to the highway district’s acceptable threshold of 40,000 car trips over the course of a full day.
In order to shorten trip times as much as possible, the system would include dedicated lanes for buses only and the ability for bus drivers to have some control over when traffic lights change, Carnopis said.
This is one possible way to dramatically improve public transportation in and around Boise without incurring the massive cost of rail systems like subways and commuter trains, Carnopis said.
The city of Boise is taking the lead in managing the grant-funded planning process, Valley Regional Transit executive director Kelli Fairless said. Other partners include the cities of Eagle, Garden City and Star; Ada County Highway District, the agency that controls public roads in the county; the Idaho Transportation Department; Ada County; and the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.
Over the next few months, Fairless said, the partners will hash out agreements for who does what and hire a consultant to do much of the work. Part of that process is developing a plan for public input, she said.
The State Street bus route in Boise had more riders in September than all Canyon County routes.
Anyone who drives State Street regularly can tell you traffic is heavy enough.
Numbers back up that perception. The busiest intersections are attracting more than 2,000 cars during the 60-minute peak of afternoon rush hour, according to the highway district’s most recent traffic counts.
That puts State Street high on the list of busiest roads in Ada County. And it’s going to get busier as developers respond to a hot housing market and a declining number of places to build homes, especially in or near Boise.
More than 700 apartments and townhomes are newly built or in the planning or construction phases north of State Street between Gary Lane and the west side of Bogart Lane. Those projects will add thousands of car trips each day to the roads around them. Many will end up on State Street and stay there for a while because they have few east-west alternatives.
“State Street’s fairly unique for us because, the way it’s situated on the north side of the river, there really are no competent parallel routes,” said Daren Fluke, the city of Boise’s comprehensive planning manager.
Local planners have been fretting over traffic on State Street since at least 2002.
One technical memo predicted that, in 20 years, State Street would need nine lanes just to keep congestion where it’s at today, Fluke said.
There’s no practical way to widen State Street by four lanes. Even if there were, city of Boise planners think it would be wasteful.
“We’re at a point in time where we can’t just say we’re going to go add lanes if we’re experiencing congestion,” Fluke said. “If it worked, that would be one thing. But it’s always a temporary fix.”
Fluke is referring to a concept known as induced demand. The idea, prevalent in City Hall planning circles, is that because adding lanes to a given road briefly reduces congestion, drivers are attracted to it, which increases congestion in the long run.
Planners like Fluke believe State Street needs a new approach. They want better non-car options so that, as congestion worsens, more and more drivers ditch their cars and take the bus or ride a bike or — some far-off day — hop on a commuter train.
“It has nothing to do with us telling people to get out of their car,” Fluke said. “We just want people to be able to move around the city in the way that makes sense for them. And we feel like we’ve got a really good system for cars right now, and what we’re really lacking is public transportation and good robust bicycle facilities for the people that want to use them.”
Some of the most powerful people in Ada County’s transportation community don’t subscribe to City Hall’s philosophy.
“I do not think you can socially engineer people out of their cars,” said Rebecca Arnold, the senior member of the highway district’s governing board. “What I think will happen if you take that approach and try to make it so difficult to drive that people won’t drive, they’ll just go elsewhere.”
This disagreement is at the heart of years of head-butting between the city and the highway district.
The Idaho Legislature also has resisted Boise’s pleas for a more transit-friendly environment. City leaders, led most vocally by Mayor Dave Bieter, have repeatedly asked state lawmakers to give cities authority to put local-option tax measures in front of voters. If those measures passed, a small increase in the local sales tax could be used to pay for rail-based or other public transportation systems.
“The infrastructure needs of Boise and, really, the Treasure Valley are not the same as they are for a Pocatello or a Coeur d’Alene,” Fluke said. “(Lawmakers) need to give us the tools that we need to be successful. And just backing us into this corner of always having to build bigger and better roads is not the solution to mobility.”
Bieter hopes a new Downtown Boise transit system can be implemented without a local option tax, but the kind of Treasure Valley-wide rail system that would link cities like Eagle, Middleton and Star to Boise likely would cost more money than the local governments could squirrel away.
“We are looking at the rail corridor and the other corridors south of the river to figure out what the best high-capacity corridor will be,” Fluke said. “But State Street is critical today, and so it took on a certain urgency just because of how it’s operating right now.”