Traffic & Transportation

Bieter has wanted streetcar for over a decade. The project could soon take a step forward.

Boise Mayor David Bieter has long dreamed of a streetcar in Downtown Boise.

The city is moving one step closer to making those dreams a reality.

The Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban renewal agency, is including $589,000 in its budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 to fund part of the engineering for a downtown circulator with the city of Boise.

The funding would come from taxing River Myrtle Old Boise and Westside urban renewal districts. Urban renewal districts earn revenue using what’s called tax increment funding. An urban renewal district can spend property tax revenues generated above the amount property owners paid at the time the district was formed. The more that the property values increase — via inflation or economic development in the area — the more an urban renewal district has to spend.

Starting on engineering for the Downtown streetcar would allow the city to start applying for federal grants. Previous estimates have pegged the costs at over $110 million.

“It’s all pretty preliminary until you get a little farther down the road,” Bieter said in an interview with the Statesman.

Bieter began pushing for a streetcar in 2008 but has made little progress.

In 2013, the city and CCDC paid for a $437,500 study to look into a possible route for the transit system. It also formed a steering committee to form recommendations for the City Council about what mode of transit should be used.

The committee came forward in 2016 with a T-shaped route that would run east-west between 1st and 15th streets and north-south between University Drive on the Boise State University campus and Main Street.

The committee also didn’t agree that the circulator needed to be a streetcar. Instead, they proposed that the city look into a bus, or even autonomous vehicles.

“The technology in these kinds of projects is moving quite quickly,” Bieter said.

Already, self-driving buses are being put to the test in cities around the world, including Providence, Rhode Island and Orlando, Florida. Some international cities where self-driving buses debuted as early as 2017 are now ending the programs after the buses moved too slowly or caused safety problems.

But Bieter held to his vision despite the committee’s recommendation.

“Just look at the picture of a bus versus a streetcar,” he told the Boise Weekly in 2016. “Come on.”

In April 2017, the City Council decided to move forward with a streetcar concept, despite the fact it could cost upward of $80 million more than a bus route. A few months later, in August, the council dedicated $3.5 million to hire a consultant to identify a funding plan and estimate ridership.

Initial models found that about 740 people per day might ride a bus if it were free. A free streetcar could see closer to 1,090 trips.

Still, a question looms over the streetcar — how would it be funded?

Bieter has lamented that the Legislature denies cities the authority to go to voters to request a local option sales tax. Many consider a local-option tax the only option to fund public transportation in the area.

But it might not be necessary just for a Downtown streetcar. Instead, the city could rely on funding from the urban renewal district, Bieter told the Statesman.

Other funding, such as a local improvement district, parking money, sponsorships and advertising money, could generate $26 to $37.5 million.

“The timing of these things are part of the equation,” Bieter said. Construction costs increase every year that the city delays the project.

Bieter said he hopes engineering for the streetcar will be complete by September 2020.

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Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.