As the city of Boise is kicking the wheels of a Downtown streetcar, or “circulator” public transportation plan, we all ought to be asking some questions. After all, this is an idea that has been around for nearly a decade, packaged and repackaged, fawned over by Mayor Dave Bieter and at times flailed by public opinion.
Though we’re in no danger of going into debt tomorrow on this $111 million idea — which may not be operational for five to 10 years, according to City Councilwoman Elaine Clegg’s estimate — I’m not ready to jump on the streetcar bandwagon just yet. Why? Though there are smashing success stories about established and brand-new downtown public transportation efforts around the country, I’m not sure those situations apply to Boise, or whether the same funding formulas could be achieved: rider tickets, taxing districts, property taxes and federal money.
That said, the news of a renewed desire for a Boise streetcar came to my attention during the same week I attended the Downtown Boise Association’s annual “State of Downtown Boise,” an informative production at the new Boise Centre on Thursday. I enjoy our Downtown and its promise, and know it did not get that way by accident. We must add service innovations to keep our momentum.
Enter the Boise streetcar idea, spelled out in Sven Berg’s story in the Statesman. The T-shaped route would cover “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.”
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The “park-once” philosophy would allow visitors and residents to use the circulator to visit or patronize offices or retailers — perhaps boosting business, a benefit claimed by other cities with streetcars, Portland and Kansas City among them.
Portland Streetcar, the 16-year-old system now operating nearly 16 miles of track, is integrated into the city’s light-rail and other public transportation networks. Skeptics point to a 2014 audit that revealed ridership was overestimated and on-time performance was not as good as reported, but the popular system continues to grow.
Kansas City’s year-old, $100 million streetcar that runs a 2.2-mile route — and which people ride for free — has been such a boon to retailers that public officials are trying to find money to expand it. Portland received $75 million in federal dollars at startup and Kansas City $37 million.
Before I share some of my questions — and invite you to share yours — let me praise the city for taking the initiative to do something about public transportation, which is in short supply and, I believe, holding us back from being our best in the Treasure Valley.
▪ How come we have a deeply researched plan without much indication about where we would come up with the $111 million for the streetcar, which would run on wired or wireless electricity, and might even use an autonomous “driver”?
▪ Why has the City Council thrown the idea of a $23 million bus circulator option under the streetcar? I get the fact that survey respondents liked the “permanence” and “cool factor” afforded by a streetcar. But the $88 million difference is a high price to pay.
▪ Speaking of the survey and “open house” comments that preceded the city’s decision to go streetcar, that seems like pretty self-selected feedback from people who would tend to skew positive to the project. How about a more scientific approach to determining public opinion?
▪ Exactly how and when will this streetcar project integrate with proposals to expand the hours and reach of the Valley Regional Transit system? That, to me, is a more logical and critical next step in public transportation. The city acknowledges a new State Street bus route initiative, but I’m still waiting to see us better exploit the potential of our beautiful new Downtown transit station.
▪ Now, imagine all of those rails on our Downtown streets. Will we stumble over them? Will bike wheels find ruts? Or will they carry us smoothly into a Kansas City-style retail renaissance?
Now is the time to ask these and other questions.