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Public Transportation in the Treasure Valley:
it's all about speed, convenience and options

Joe Kolman
The Idaho Statesman

State Street is a staple of daily life for Tonya Clark and thousands of other Treasure Valley drivers.

Clark leaves her downtown job at 3 p.m., aiming her Ford pickup west on one of the area’s busiest roads, fraught with significant delays and higher-than-average accident rates.

Building wider streets has long been the government response to such quagmires. But a new State Street plan would do something much different: get at least a fourth of all travelers out of their cars and into alternative transportation such as buses, car pools, commuter vans or bikes.

The plan, adopted last week by the Ada County Highway District, calls for incremental changes to the street over the next 20 years, each designed to ease traffic. The final phase would make it seven lanes from 23rd Street to Glenwood Street, but two of those lanes would be devoted, at least part-time, to buses, car pools and commuter vans. Significant redevelopment at major intersections could increase use of public transit.

Some herald the idea as “visionary”; others decry it as “insane.” Either way, actively pursuing public transportation and redevelopment as solutions to increasing traffic is a revolutionary concept for the Treasure Valley.

“It´s groundbreaking,” says Hal Simmons, a Boise city planner for 11 years. “I´m as shocked as anybody that we got to this point.”

From here, the ACHD, the cities along State Street and ValleyRide, the area´s public transportation provider, will have to work together in unprecedented fashion. ValleyRide is contemplating short-term route changes to increase ridership. The agency also is lobbying the Legislature this week for increased funding, but officials know that hunt could take many years.

As Clark continues her drive home, she guesses correctly that she will get hung up at a red light on 16th Street. She navigates a school zone guarded by police at 27th Street and later, when the speed limit increases, chides drivers going slower than allowed.

The afternoon rush is starting.

“It´s getting earlier all the time,” says Clark, a state worker who has been making this 4-mile trek on State Street for a decade. By 4:30 p.m., the westbound lanes will be illuminated by red tail lights. Clark is grateful she doesn´t drive during the heavy commuter crunch. “I would just be a wreck,” Clark says. “I would hate it.”

State Street, Eagle Road and Fairview Avenue are among the busiest roads in the Treasure Valley. An average of almost 40,000 cars a day goes through the State Street intersection at Gary Lane.

Growth and the roadblocks to public transit
Ada and Canyon counties are expected to add another 260,000 people by 2025. More drivers mean more traffic. But as development spreads farther away from core areas, existing drivers are also putting more miles on their cars getting from place to place, according to a 1999 study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

Cities that spent loads of money on new roads are still plagued by congestion, the study found.

The reason, researchers said, is a phenomenon called “induced travel.” It means drivers are drawn to new, wider roads hoping to save time. The additional traffic encourages more development, which leads to more traffic.

“You can´t build your way out of congestion,” explains Joe Rosenlund, an ACHD traffic engineer, adding that the agency has limited funds for building new roads.

A consulting firm that recently studied State Street estimated a rapid transit bus system could take about 600 vehicles per hour off the road during morning and afternoon commutes, about 8 percent of the total traffic. Public transportation also is seen as key to preventing Treasure Valley air pollution — much of it produced by cars — from running afoul of federal standards.

The consultant also studied building a conventional seven-lane street and a three-lane elevated expressway. The public transit option would handle less traffic than the elevated roadway, but scored better than both of the other options in the categories of increased use of public transit, bikes and walking, as well as beautifying the corridor and protecting neighborhoods.

About 900 residents attended State Street public meetings last year. On a scale of one to five, with five representing the most support, the public transit option scored 3.1 compared to 2.5 for the conventional road and 2 for the elevated street.

The State Street plan, which covers 23rd Street to Idaho 55, is a basic road map, and more details will emerge in the coming months and years. While officials say the public-transit-based option is the best solution, they acknowledge roadblocks, including:

• The current public transportation system is inadequate.
Officials and residents say ValleyRide´s current bus service is not frequent enough to attract additional riders along State Street. Expanding service and upgrading buses will take money. ValleyRide is lobbying the lawmakers to allow local residents to vote on a special fee to fund public transit. Recent surveys show public support for additional public transportation, but in past years lawmakers have rejected proposals for funding.

• Major intersections need significant redevelopment.
Currently, most businesses have their own driveways off State Street, meaning more cars turning off and onto the road, thus slowing traffic and increasing the chance of accidents. The plan calls for a clustering of businesses, so you could park and patronize several businesses without having to get back on State Street.

Apartments and townhomes in those areas would provide businesses with customers and possible candidates for public transit.

• Inadequate bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
Cyclists and walkers need safe pathways to reach buses, businesses and residences.

More cars means a longer wait
As the major east-west route north of the Boise River, State Street ferries commuters, schoolchildren and shoppers. It connects downtown Boise to its growing suburbs. Hikers, boaters, anglers and other recreationists use it to access Idaho 55.

Leaving from downtown, it takes Clark 13 minutes to reach her home off State Street near Plantation River Road. She hits only four red lights. With no improvements, traffic planners estimate a 15-minute drive today could take up to an hour in 20 years.

Now, during the evening rush, drivers converging at the intersection of State and 36th Street wait an average of almost a minute for a green light. By the year 2025, the wait could be four minutes.

Carrie Gemmill already is tired of waiting. It takes her 40 minutes to drive 15 miles from her home in Eagle to her office on the East ParkCenter Boulevard.

“I left Southern California years ago because of that,” says Gemmill, who is looking for a home closer to work. While she may move closer, population forecasters see more people commuting to Boise on State Street from the area near Eagle and Star.

The population of those two towns alone is projected to increase by more than 50 percent by 2025.

As that growth occurs, officials see State Street as a possible model for how public transportation could be done on other corridors.

Will people use public transit?
In terms of getting people to use public transit, the only way to go is up. About eight out of 10 Treasure Valley residents drive alone to work, according to Census figures. Eleven percent participate in car pools. Less than 1 percent use public transportation.

In Spokane, Reno and Eugene, Ore. – regional cities of similar size – about 5 percent of employees take public transit to work. A ValleyRide consultant conducted a peer study and found that other transportation agencies have more funding and provide more frequent service. They also concentrate on major corridors, as opposed to providing routes all over town.

ValleyRide offers service all over Boise, meaning some buses run empty instead of providing more frequent service to State Street and other busy corridors, says ValleyRide Director Kelli Fairless.

Riding the bus would be inconvenient for many Eagle residents. The State Street bus goes only as far west as Glenwood. Buses run at half-hour intervals during peak commute times and hourly the rest of the day until 7:40 p.m.
“Our system isn´t designed to do anything really well,” Fairless said.

But change is afoot.
Within the year, ValleyRide could eliminate less-productive routes, and State Street may have a direct route.

Some locals still doubt the car-loving Treasure Valley will ever embrace public transit.

“If you think it´s something that´s going to appeal to the masses, you´re dreaming,” says Phil Myers of Eagle, a retired state employee who commuted on State Street for 16 years. He still drives it up to 10 times a week. Even if his 20-minute trip ballooned to 40 minutes, Myers said he would still drive.

Jerry Lowe, who lives on Plantation Lane off State Street, also doubts public transit can succeed.

“I don´t think the mentality of the typical Idaho citizen will give up his car until he´s absolutely forced to,” Lowe says.

A more convenient State Street?

No one´s going to be forced into buses, officials say, but they believe residents need an array of travel options. Mass transit experts say public transportation must be faster, cheaper or more convenient — if not all those things — to get people to out of their cars.

Lofty long-term plans — which will need additional funding — eventually call for State Street to be served by Bus Rapid Transit, buses that operate on streets but look and are guided like trains.

That kind of service is hard to envision when one is familiar only with the current system, says Jon Barrett of Idaho Smart Growth, a group that promotes public transit, among other things. “I feel like this is now my mission,” Barrett says, “to show people that the public transit system we have and a modern, reliable, quality transit system are two separate things.”

Under the State Street plan, buses, car pools and commuter vans would get one lane to themselves each way, at least during rush hours. Signals may give them priority at intersections. You could be sitting alone in your car for several turns of a light as bus riders whiz by.

Such delays might entice people out of their cars and into public transportation, says Catherine Sanchez, the director of ACHD´s van pool program. “If you make it convenient and you make it a benefit to them timewise, they´ll do it,” Sanchez says.

Downtown parking also could figure into the equation. If parking availability shrinks and costs increase, transit may become more attractive. Employers could expand employee perks — which now sometimes include free or reduced-cost parking — and include public transportation.

Eric Milstead reads the newspaper as the Commuters Bus takes him from Eagle to downtown Boise. He doesn´t worry about parking. In summer, he takes the bus to work and rides his bike home.

“I just got tired of sitting at traffic lights and watching my car idle along with everyone else,” says the Legislative Services worker. “If people don´t like the traffic and they don´t like the haze and the smog ... you´ve got to do something else.”

He says he is an optimist when it comes to public transit. It´s an attitude that will have to be multiplied throughout the valley for the State Street plan to work.

“The more options folks are presented with and the more user-friendly public transit can be, I´m hopeful that more people will get encouraged to use it,” Milstead says. “It´s not like you´ve got to participate in public transit every single day of your life. Just using it occasionally can make a difference.”