Your commute could go faster with carpool lanes. Why doesn’t the Valley have any?

Heavy traffic on Interstate 84.
Heavy traffic on Interstate 84. doswald@idahostatesman.com

In some cities, buses and drivers with one or more passengers in their cars can take specially reserved “high occupancy” lanes to speed their daily commutes on busy roads. Not Boise.

Local transportation planners want to change that. They’ve wanted to for years. Now, with population spiking and development rampant, they’re more keen than ever to fight increasing traffic congestion by encouraging people to carpool or use public transportation.

But they need the Legislature’s permission. An effort this this year seemed to find sympathetic ears at the Capitol. That now appears dead, though it might come back next year.

Idaho law allows HOV lanes, but only in counties with populations of fewer than 25,000 that have resort cities inside their boundaries. That does nothing for busy roads in Ada and Canyon counties. State Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, proposed removing the restriction.

Ken Burgess, a lobbyist for Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, thinks the Legislature has resisted carpool lanes because most of its members represent rural districts without heavy traffic. Burgess said planners, including COMPASS, should do a better job of explaining the benefits.

Brackett’s proposal never got a full hearing, because one committee member objected, and it’s too late in this year’s legislative session to introduce the bill through the normal process, Burgess said. He didn’t know which member of the committee balked. Brackett polled the committee informally instead of holding a public vote, he said.

Still, Burgess thinks a bill loosening restrictions on HOV lanes could at least get a hearing next year.

The stretch of Interstate 84 between Nampa and the Cole Road interchange, which bogs down during rush hour, is an oft-mentioned candidate for HOV lanes. Emergency vehicles could use the lanes, too.

The Ada County Highway District, which controls public roads, and Valley Regional Transit, the local public transportation authority, have proposed a bus-only far right lane for State Street between Downtown Boise and at least Glenwood Street. That stretch of road is the most popular bus route in the Treasure Valley. The highway district believes Idaho law makes that kind of lane restriction illegal.

Even if a bill allowing more HOV lanes passes next year, it’s unclear when they might be built. The widening of State Street is likely several years out. That widening is expected to occur with or without the bus-only lanes.

Ada County leaders have pushed for HOV lanes since at least 1993. A bill similar to this year’s proposal died in the 2011 legislative session.