Can a city in love with cars sustain its own bus route?
That’s what Meridian city officials are experimenting with. The city is budgeting $419,000 this year to buy new buses for a route that would connect Ten Mile Crossing, downtown Meridian and The Village at Meridian — some of the city’s major employment centers. Service would run every 30 to 60 minutes between 6 and 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday in both eastbound and westbound directions.
“Is our population truly automobile-centric? The answer is yes, simply because currently that’s the only mode of transit,” Meridian Community Development Director Cameron Arial said in an interview.
Arial hopes the bus line will be a first step for the city as it builds out a longer-range plan for public transportation improvements. The bus would cost between $310,000 and $770,000 annually, depending on how frequently Meridian wants it to run.
But a question remains: Who will ride it?
Planners know homeowners are unlikely to abandon their three-car garages for a morning bus commute. Besides, single-family neighborhoods aren’t dense enough to support a bus system.
Successful bus routes need people, and in Meridian, people are spread out. Throughout the city, the average density is just over three dwelling units per acre. Lower densities make it harder to set up routes with destinations within walking distance. Meridian’s curving streets punctuated by cul-de-sacs force buses to take detours from more straightforward routes.
Instead, city planners are betting that those moving into the hundreds of apartments going up near Ten Mile — the office, retail and residential development just north of Interstate 84 — and near The Village may not mind giving up their cars.
The proposed bus route would offer service to an estimated 7,000 people and provide a connection to 7,000 jobs, according to Valley Regional Transit estimates.
“Is everyone who lives in The Village going to be able to get to their job on this line? Probably not — but some will,” Arial said. “The idea is to service as many of those hubs as possible.”
Meridian is a city designed for the automobile. As a result, the city and its residents have treated public transportation mostly as an afterthought.
In Meridian, 98% of residents drive alone to work, according to a ValleyRide survey of 209 workers. About half of the city’s workers commute to Boise, and a fifth stay in Meridian, according to 2015 Census data.
Support for transit options is increasing. When ValleyRide surveyed 1,037 Treasure Valley residents in 2018, 73% wanted more public transportation options, up from 67% in 2016. In Meridian specifically, 40% were interested in using a bus to commute — more people than were interested in carpooling (25%) or biking (21%).
But getting even apartment-dwellers to ditch their cars still may be a challenge.
Stephen Hunt, a principal planner with ValleyRide, is happy to see Meridian increasing its public transportation options but has low expectations for ridership. A bus every half hour during rush hour isn’t frequent enough to be convenient for many riders. He estimates the buses would at first provide 14,000 to 30,000 rides each year.
“The challenge is that what we are proposing is still not very attractive to a whole lot of people — we’re talking about a fairly narrow span of time,” Hunt said. “We’re not expecting it to be crazy full and that all of a sudden the traffic on Eagle is going to go away.”
To increase ridership, Hunt said the city needs to increase the frequency of buses. That, of course, takes money — perhaps more than the city is willing to invest.
The $419,000 included in Meridian’s draft budget for fiscal year 2020 would be used to leverage federal funding for two electric buses needed for the route, which would cost $2 million. Some of the funds would be put toward bus signs and shelters.
Meridian has spent far more providing incentives for roadwork. The city contributed $1 million to buy the right of way for the Locust Grove Road overpass when it was built in 2007. More recently, it has offered funds to help widen Linder Road to five lanes.
Residents collectively spend far more of their own money on buying and repairing their cars than the government spends on transit, Hunt said.
“The Treasure Valley spends between $2 billion and $3 billion a year in driving ourselves around. We spend $10 million to $15 million on transit operations,” he said. “The result is that we don’t have service that runs very often, you don’t have transit that goes many places, and it’s not attractive to very many people.”
Even as the Treasure Valley has grown, bus ridership figures have hardly changed since 1993, with 1.3 million trips per year. Service levels are also similar: Most routes still go through Boise exclusively, and while a few routes run on 15-minute intervals during peak commute hours, most still operate on 30-minute or even 60-minute schedules.
Meridian’s public transportation options are even more limited. The city provides $49,324 to ValleyRide in fiscal year 2020, plus $99,349 to help operate two ValleyRide intercounty bus routes. It also contracts with the Harvest Church in Meridian to provide a dial-a-ride service for seniors and people with disabilities for $168,184 annually.
By comparison, Boise is slated to spend $8.9 million this year on its bus routes, or about 5% of its budget. Meridian’s total spending — $736,107, if it decides to fund the bus route this year — would be a little more than one-tenth of 1% of its entire budget.
“We spend literally billions of dollars just to get ourselves around by car,” Hunt said. “And yet it’s transit that people believe is expensive.”
Even if cities did want to put more money toward a larger-scale public transportation system, the Legislature limits their ability to fund it the way cities in some states do, such as via a local option sales tax, which lets cities hold an election to raise local sales taxes to go toward public amenities like transit.
Ultimately, Meridian envisions a larger public transit network, Arial said. The city would like to see Boise’s routes extended out to The Village and Ten Mile and linked to routes in Nampa “for a true Valley-wide connection,” he said.
If the region does find a way to build a commuter rail in the future, bus routes would become an important feeder for that system, Hunt said. Valley Regional Transit’s plan ValleyConnect 2.0 outlines a vision for a north-south route through Meridian, too, that would connect Kuna to Chinden Boulevard.
But those efforts would be years away. The Meridian City Council still needs to approve funding for the proposed route during its budgeting process this summer, which it is expected to do.
“There’s been a lot of efforts to find a bigger solution,” Arial said. “This is what we can do now — and what we should do.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the agency that created the ValleyConnect 2.0 transit plan. The plan was created by Valley Regional Transit, not COMPASS.