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ACHD challengers call for more acquiescent board

Ada County Highway District incumbent commissioner Sara Baker responds to a question regarding how the agency should work with the Idaho Department of Transportation and local city governments during a forum on Oct. 19.
Ada County Highway District incumbent commissioner Sara Baker responds to a question regarding how the agency should work with the Idaho Department of Transportation and local city governments during a forum on Oct. 19. doswald@idahostatesman.com

If a few Ada County Highway District elections had gone differently, Jefferson Street might have stayed open between Downtown Boise and the East End.

Beacon Light Road in north Eagle might soon be a five-lane thoroughfare instead of a rural road.

The sacrifice of street-side parking spaces and lane widths to make room for bike lanes might be less likely.

These are a few examples of the dozens of decisions commissioners make every year in governing public roads throughout Ada County. Often, those decisions are among the most plainly — and for some, painfully — felt that any government makes.

Besides votes commissioners make on specific proposals, they give countless tacit approvals through broad policies that staff members implement in the form of adding — or leaving out — bike lanes or signalized crosswalks to projects.

POLEMICS

This year’s election gives voters a choice between two philosophies of Ada County Highway District’s role.

Two seasoned incumbents — Rebecca Arnold and Sara Baker — say the district should operate more independently than their challengers — David Eberle, Mike Tracy and Rick Just — recommend.

City influence has been a nonstop debate since voters established the district in 1972. Commissioners have repeatedly butted heads with other governments in the county.

In recent years, the most notable disputes have been with the Boise City Council and Mayor Dave Bieter over issues from bike lanes to on-street parking. Boise leaders generally embrace a transportation philosophy guided by Smart Growth principles, which advocate for dense urban development and networks that accommodate car, bicycle, foot and public transportation traffic.

The commission leaned toward more traditional transportation values, which emphasize safe and efficient roads designed primarily for cars.

PARADIGM SHIFT

The 2014 election was a turning point in this tense relationship. Kent Goldthorpe and Paul Woods, supported if not outright endorsed by Boise City Hall types, replaced Mitchell Jaurena and John Franden, who retired.

Goldthorpe, who campaigned on accusations “that there is hardly any civility demonstrated by (Jaurena) to his colleagues, the staff or even to his constituents,” said the board should be more amenable to Boise’s wishes.

“The ‘my way or the highway’ attitude needs to go,” Goldthorpe said 2014. “If Boise is proposing projects that are safe, meet the high standards of quality construction, the bid process is open and honest then the city of Boise should have a greater say in what goes on there, as should all municipalities in Ada County.”

Woods, a former city of Boise employee and Ada County commissioner, campaigned on a similar platform, highlighting his “history of collaboration” and stressing the importance of “opening the lines of communications between the ACHD and the other government entities.”

NEW KIDS A BLOC?

Whatever their philosophical differences, commissioners haven’t always voted in teams.

In June, for example, Woods and Goldthorpe sided with frequent city of Boise antagonists Rebecca Arnold and Sara Baker in voting to close part of Jefferson Street, allowing an expansion of the St. Luke’s Downtown Boise hospital. Jim Hansen, whose overall philosophy tends to align with City Hall’s, cast the only vote against the Jefferson closure, which the Boise City Council had already approved.

But four months earlier, Woods, Goldthorpe and Hansen overpowered Baker and Arnold and limited Beacon Light Road between Idaho 16 and Idaho 55 to no more than three lanes.

As in 2014, this year’s election brings a sharp choice about the district’s appropriate role. Baker and Arnold face challengers who say the district should be much more amenable to cities’ desires than it has been during the incumbents’ tenure. Eberle, a former Boise councilman trying to unseat Arnold, said “ACHD should behave more like a streets department.” Just, who’s challenging Baker, called the district a “utility.” Tracy, also opposing Baker, staked out a middle ground, calling for more case-by-case analysis in the district’s relationships with cities.

ACHD, county commissioner candidates forum Oct. 27

The League of Women Voters is sponsoring a candidate forum for the Ada County commissioner and Ada County Highway District commissioner races.

Jim Weatherby, professor emeritus from Boise State Univeristy, will moderate. All candidates in contested races have agreed to participate. Republican Rick Visser and Democrat TJ Thomson are the candidates for Ada County commissioner. ACHD candidates are Rebecca Arnold and David Eberle in District 2; and Sara Baker, Rick Just and Mike Tracy in District 5.

Ada County Commission candidates run countywide. ACHD candidates must live within a subdistrict of the county, and only the people who live in that subdistrict can vote for them.

Candidates will respond to written questions from the audience. The public is invited at no charge.

The event starts at 7 p.m. on Oct. 27 at the Boise Public Library Auditorium, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. It is expected to go until 9 p.m.

ACHD candidates on roundabouts, bike lanes and the agency’s role

Here’s how the candidates in Ada County Highway District’s two contested races this year replied to a series of questions from the Idaho Statesman. For more questions and answers, check out the Statesman’s Voter Guide at IdahoStatesman.com.

Rebecca Arnold, 59, lawyer, ACHD commissioner since 2005

Would you be in favor of eliminating some surface parking spots or narrowing car lanes in areas such as Downtown Boise or Downtown Meridian to make room for protected bike lanes?

As far as parking spots go, that's really more up to the cities.

I would not be in favor of narrowing vehicle travel lanes on arterials below 11 feet. I know there are some people who have advocated for 10 and 10-and-a-half feet...There are vehicles that routinely use those streets that are more than 10 feet wide. So it would be impossible for them to stay within the lanes, which makes that unsafe.

Often, city planners are frustrated by ceding control over transportation to ACHD, especially around new projects that will significantly increase traffic volumes. Should ACHD do what the cities want, or should it remain independent?

ACHD was created by the voters in Ada County by an overwhelming vote... It is very clear that the legislative intent was that ACHD — or any single county-wide highway district — would be a separate and independent entity and not take direction from the cities.

Do we consider the cities' opinions? Absolutely...But it's one factor of many. We also consider what's the law. We also consider safety. That's probably my number-one concern. We also consider public input...0 You have to weigh all of those when you're making a decision. And in my case, sometimes I end up on the same side of an issue with the city and sometimes I don't.

The dogbone roundabout at Hill Road, Catalpa Drive and 36th Street seems to have improved traffic flow. Should ACHD put roundabouts in other areas?

You have to look at those on a case-by-case basis. There are so many different factors that go into that. We have the engineers look at it to see if there are safety factors that weigh for or against it. So every intersection's different.

I think (the Hill-Catalpa-36th roundabout) was a home run. But would that work in a different location? Not necessarily. It might.

Do you hold a more traditional philosophy of transportation that emphasizes safe and timely car travel over other modes, or do you embrace principles that strive to put other modes, such as walking and biking, on a more comparable footing with cars?

I don't think it's one or the other...It would be wonderful if more people rode bikes, but I think you can't force that.

I do not think you can socially engineer people out of their cars. 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. And it will hurt the businesses Downtown.

David Eberle, 64, economist, former Boise City Councilman

Would you be in favor of eliminating some surface parking spots or narrowing car lanes in areas such as Downtown Boise or Downtown Meridian to make room for protected bike lanes?

Within the right context, absolutely... If it is a commercial district — shopping where there's lots of pedestrian and bicycle traffic, then it would be very appropriate. If it's a high-transit-capacity corridor, then it would be a different situation.

It's terribly important that ACHD works in conjunction with the hypothetical city, that it is consistent with their land-use plans — in other words, the uses that they're creating alongside those roads.

Often, city planners are frustrated by ceding control over transportation to ACHD, especially around new projects that will significantly increase traffic volumes. Should ACHD do what the cities want, or should it remain independent?

It will remain independent. There is no way we can unwind where ACHD is today...However, what really needs to happen is that ACHD needs to partner with the cities. And we ought to use that stable of engineers to work with the cities so that as they develop their comprehensive plans and their land-use maps, they understand the traffic needs for that area.

I honestly believe that ACHD should behave more like a streets department and really work with the cities on the comprehensive plans, so as they develop these areas, the roads are right-sized.

The dogbone roundabout at Hill Road, Catalpa Drive and 36th Street seems to have improved traffic flow. Should ACHD put roundabouts in other areas?

Roundabouts have approximately half the points of contact that a four-way intersection has, and they have no T-bone intersections. So they're much safer. Yes, they should be considered where appropriate.

There are several reasons besides safety. There's air quality in the intersections. Cars aren't starting up from dead stops. They seem to be pretty safe, and I think with more experience, we'll become more comfortable with them.

Do you hold a more traditional philosophy of transportation that emphasizes safe and timely car travel over other modes, or do you embrace principles that strive to put other modes, such as walking and biking, on a more comparable footing with cars?

That's a problem to suggest that those two are inherently in conflict or different viewpoints. What you need to do with your streets is that they need to be right-sized for the function for which they are intended to operate. A street like Fairview, for example, can go through several different functions on a stretch...I am not traditional in the way that I am auto-centric. I am people- and goods- and services-centric.

Sara Baker, 62, ACHD commissioner since 2009

Would you be in favor of eliminating some surface parking spots or narrowing car lanes in areas such as Downtown Boise or Downtown Meridian to make room for protected bike lanes?

When you narrow car lanes, you have to be concerned that buses and dump trucks and trash trucks and everything are extremely large, and they may fit within the lane from outside paint to outside paint, but it makes it very dangerous.

I don't think there's an issue in Downtown Meridian, quite frankly. But in Downtown Boise at this point, my philosophy was to get rid of one of the parking lanes and make that the bike lane. Because otherwise, you're just encouraging gridlock Downtown.

Often, city planners are frustrated by ceding control over transportation to ACHD, especially around new projects that will significantly increase traffic volumes. Should ACHD do what the cities want, or should it remain independent?

If the cities want to regain control of their roads, there's a mechanism in the law that allows them to put it to a vote of the people. That's what they should do.

We can't do land use. That's the cities' responsibility. We make sure that the infrastructure fits as best as possible the land use.

The dogbone roundabout at Hill Road, Catalpa Drive and 36th Street seems to have improved traffic flow. Should ACHD put roundabouts in other areas?

We should be looking for areas with more roundabouts. People are hesitant until they try them, and then the vast majority enjoy them because it allows traffic to move continuously.

The more we can use them, I think, the better, because that is what keeps traffic moving. And when you keep traffic moving, you keep air quality better because pollution occurs when you're just sitting there... It saves people time, and you know, that is a big thing. And it gives people the ability to feel they are in control.

Do you hold a more traditional philosophy of transportation that emphasizes safe and timely car travel over other modes, or do you embrace principles that strive to put other modes, such as walking and biking, on a more comparable footing with cars?

While 95 percent of the trips in this community are taken by car, I think there's an absolute place for pedestrianism and there's an absolute place for bike lanes. I advocate putting bike lanes in wherever we can and retrofitting roads. Same with pedestrians...But when you've got 95 percent of the trips taken by X and 5 by Y and Z, you can't put them on an equal footing. That just isn't realistic.

Mike Tracy, 61, public relations and political consultant

Would you be in favor of eliminating some surface parking spots or narrowing car lanes in areas such as Downtown Boise or Downtown Meridian to make room for protected bike lanes?

I would leave that up to the communities to decide...Meridian, for instance, would like to see detached bike lanes. Boise would like to see bike lanes that are on the street.

You look at three things. You look at safety. You look at commerce, and everybody is involved in commerce that either walks or drives or uses a bike — whatever mode of transportation. And then, in addition to that, common sense. You try to balance all three of those, which is a difficult thing to do.

Often, city planners are frustrated by ceding control over transportation to ACHD, especially around new projects that will significantly increase traffic volumes. Should ACHD do what the cities want, or should it remain independent?

I think it's a joint effort...What may be a perfect solution for Harris Ranch may be a completely different solution for Paramount in Meridian.

I would likely acquiesce to the city, but I would also use common sense at the same time and look at the safety concerns. And again, there's no simple answer to it. You have to balance a lot of very difficult issues.

The dogbone roundabout at Hill Road, Catalpa Drive and 36th Street seems to have improved traffic flow. Should ACHD put roundabouts in other areas?

I've had mixed input from people on roundabouts. Studies show that they work better than stop signs and stop lights, but then, anecdotal information that I get from people — they don't like roundabouts. So the jury's still out for me on that. It's a decision I'd have to make and look at really closely and look at data and safety statistics, just a variety of things. I know there are costs involved as well that have to be considered on using a roundabout versus a stop light or stop sign.

Do you hold a more traditional philosophy of transportation that emphasizes safe and timely car travel over other modes, or do you embrace principles that strive to put other modes, such as walking and biking, on a more comparable footing with cars?

Again, what it comes down to with the traditional versus non-traditional modes is the communities.

Meridian would like to have its Downtown core have more walking and I think more biking, but there's still really high demand for traditional (transportation). So I would say that while I lean more heavily toward the traditional, I can see where the needs are there for biking and walking.

Rick Just, 67, retired planner, author, artist

Would you be in favor of eliminating some surface parking spots or narrowing car lanes in areas such as Downtown Boise or Downtown Meridian to make room for protected bike lanes?

In general, I am in favor of that. You have to look at it case-by-case. But it seems to me that we need to be going that direction for bikes especially. We have a problem with injury accidents for both pedestrians and bikes in the area. And as people gravitate more and more toward that kind of transportation, we need to provide a way for them to get around.

Often, city planners are frustrated by ceding control over transportation to ACHD, especially around new projects that will significantly increase traffic volumes. Should ACHD do what the cities want, or should it remain independent?

In general, ACHD should do what the cities want. We're a utility. If we were the street department for Start or Kuna or Boise, we would just comment on those new projects just the same way that the fire department and others do now before it goes to Planning and Zoning.

However, I think that we are stuck with the structure, at least for now. And so, the best that we can hope so is to get ACHD commissioners in there that believe that cities should be in charge of their own destinies.

The dogbone roundabout at Hill Road, Catalpa Drive and 36th Street seems to have improved traffic flow. Should ACHD put roundabouts in other areas?

I think we should be looking at them more. But again, that's another issue that we should be working more closely on with cities. If cities just don't like roundabouts, who are we to tell them different? I personally like them, and I think people get used to them and they're fine with them eventually. And the more we have, the more people will appreciate them.

Do you hold a more traditional philosophy of transportation that emphasizes safe and timely car travel over other modes, or do you embrace principles that strive to put other modes, such as walking and biking, on a more comparable footing with cars?

Certainly the latter. I'm certainly looking at more ways to move people around. In the next 10 years, we're going to see such a lot of change in transportation. We shouldn't be looking in the mirror for everything. You look there to back up, but when you're headed forward...you need to look forward, and I think that's what we're missing right now in a lot of ACHD commissioners.

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