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Sven Berg: Boise moves toward decision on St. Luke’s expansion

With all the meetings, cancelled meetings, open houses, workshops and rhetoric out there, I figured I’d take a look at some of the key points in the ongoing conversation/controversy over St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center’s proposed expansion in Downtown Boise. See more details on that proposal here.

Let’s start with the latest:

What happened Tuesday night?

Not a whole lot of new information came out. St. Luke’s went back over its plan to expand its main Downtown building to the north, which would force the closure of Jefferson Street between Avenue B and 1st Street. The hospital wants to move to an integrated care model, placing a variety of related services on the same floor so that patients can be moved between them more quickly and with less stress.

Obviously, the Jefferson Street closure doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. Hundreds have attended Boise City Council meetings and other events and written to the city to express their displeasure. They’re mad because Jefferson Street is a major connection through the northeast section of Downtown, and they don’t want to lose it.

Tuesday’s meeting was a pretty open format. Mayor David Bieter chaired the meeting, but he wasn’t a stickler on normal meeting rules. He let people around the table address each other directly and they did so politely. The public was also allowed to submit written questions to city staffers, who then asked the questions to St. Luke’s team, the council, etc. That seemed to work pretty well. People had good, detail-oriented questions and most of them elicited specific answers.

Any new details?

Instead of opponents making doomsday predictions and the hospital saying everything will be OK, we heard specifics on how traffic is likely to behave if St. Luke’s gets its way. This was refreshing.

Here’s my running blog from Tuesday night’s meeting.

Will traffic move around the hospital campus in a safe, orderly way? The hospital’s team of experts thinks so. They say the suite of transportation changes they’re proposing – a two-way bike track around the campus, a 10-foot path through the middle of it, reworked intersections with roundabouts near the campus – will make up for the loss of Jefferson as a cycling corridor.

But what about car traffic on Avenue B/Broadway Avenue? That seemed to worry council members and some of the crowd. Council members want to make sure that Avenue B doesn’t turn into a solid wall of cars that discourages people from riding bicycles or walking across it. On the other hand, nobody wants huge lines of backed-up cars because crossing signals for pedestrians and cyclists stop traffic for long enough to cause gridlock on Avenue B.

St. Luke’s said they’re working on timing those pedestrian/bicycle crossing signals so that gridlock doesn’t happen.

Councilwoman Lauren McLean wondered if there’s a way to divert more of that northbound traffic on to Idaho Street, thereby taking some of the pressure off the rest of Avenue B.

What if St. Luke’s doesn’t get its way?

St. Luke’s will always have a hospital in Boise, its team said. But the company reiterated that it will begin to shift its regional medical center to its Meridian facility. This migration would happen over a period of several years.

What’s next?

The council voted 3-1 Tuesday night to hold a public hearing June 30 on the St. Luke’s proposal. Councilwoman Elaine Clegg, who said she still had questions on the proposal, voted against holding that public hearing date. Councilman Ben Quintana isn’t allowed to participate in these meetings because he works for St. Luke’s. Lauren McLean left the meeting before it ended.

So June 30 is the earliest a vote could take place.

Typically, the council votes on a proposal the night of the public hearing. I’m not 100 percent sure that’ll happen in this case. Just about anyone who wants to comment is allowed to at public hearings. And there will be a lot of them at this one. Their time to speak will be limited, but a couple minutes apiece adds up pretty fast when hundreds of people want to have their say. Bieter sometimes asks people not to comment if what they’re about to say has already been said. Most people don’t pay attention to that appeal, and the public hearing format is designed to err on the side of letting people talk too much.

So it’s possible the council would break the public hearing after several hours and resume it another night. That’s not a certainty, but it could happen.

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