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 areas 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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.