Boise & Garden City

Boise having another go at a streetcar for Downtown transit

This map shows how a Downtown circulator would fit into Boise’s broader transportation system.
This map shows how a Downtown circulator would fit into Boise’s broader transportation system.

Nine years after introducing a plan for a rail-based Downtown public transportation system, Boise city leaders are taking another swing at it.

The difference is the amount of forethought that went into the new proposal. The first plan was hastily conceived, but the new one is the result of three years of consultants’ work, as well as meetings, presentations, workshops and open houses to find out what kind of transit system — if any — businesspeople, government leaders and the general public thought Downtown needed.

During that process, the city received about 300 written comments from the public and some 100 verbal comments from professional groups. At an open house, more than half of the 170 people who wrote comments on a potential circulator favored a rail-based vehicle, such as a streetcar, “due to its permanency and ‘cool factor,’ ” according to a city of Boise document.

Slightly more than one-quarter preferred the idea of a bus system.

This must have come as music to the ears of Mayor Dave Bieter, who has pushed for a Downtown streetcar almost as long as he’s been in office. The City Council told staff Tuesday to pursue a streetcar option as the preferred vehicle for what the city calls the Downtown circulator.

The council also signed off on a preferred route that runs along Main and Idaho streets between 15th and Broadway; and along 9th Street and Capitol Boulevard between the Downtown Core and the Boise State University campus, with a spur along University Drive that reaches the Student Union Building.

The next step is to start working on how to pay for this system.

And that’s the trick, especially with a rail-based system. The city’s latest projections put total startup costs for a Downtown streetcar at $111 million, compared to $23 million for a bus system.

There’s virtually no way the city could come up with that kind of money on its own. A staff analysis concluded that local sources, such as a local improvement district, parking money, urban renewal money, sponsorships and advertising money, could generate $26 million to $37.5 million.

To make the streetcar work, Boise would likely need a big chunk of cash from the federal government. The city has already identified grant programs that could contribute, but that money is far from certain.

The one certainty at this point is that City Hall believes a streetcar is the right path for Downtown Boise.

Bieter reiterated one of his standard pro-streetcar arguments Tuesday when he talked about a circulator’s potential to boost Boise’s prosperity. Consultants generally agree that other cities, such as Portland, have shown that streetcars spur greater economic activity. Precedents for bus systems’ economic impact are harder to find, they told the city.

City Council President Elaine Clegg said Tuesday that she thinks a Downtown circulator can be the first piece of a much larger public transportation system that stretches across the Treasure Valley.