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Transit officials lobby for state funding

Joe Kolman
The Idaho Statesman

Terry Crawford would rather wrestle a 30-foot bus through the narrow streets of Ketchum than don a coat and tie and stand before a gaggle of lawmakers.

But on Thursday (Feb. 12), Crawford and other public transportation managers from across the state descended on the Capitol and explained the difficulties in serving what they say is an increasing need for public transportation in both urban and rural Idaho.

“Transit has all these special needs that aren´t being met,” Crawford said.

The Idaho Task Force on Public Transportation, composed of public officials, transit managers and others, is lobbying for changes in state law that would allow local communities to ask voters for money to fund public transit. Such a request, expected to be introduced next week, may not be embraced.

But task force members said they hope to at least get lawmakers talking about public transit in Idaho, one of only a handful of states without state support of transit.

A bill wasn´t introduced Thursday, but transit agencies want the power to ask voters for additional funds from something like a vehicle property tax.

Lawmakers have not supported public transportation funding in the past decade, but advocates now point to public opinion surveys showing support for transit as well as other issues coming to the fore.

In the Treasure Valley, support for public transportation was a campaign issue last November among several candidates, including Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.

Public transit is seen as a key to relieving traffic congestion and controlling air pollution. Increased use is central to a State Street plan adopted this week by the Ada County Highway District.

But in addressing members of three legislative committees Thursday, transit advocates said public transportation is a statewide issue, not one specific to the Treasure Valley.

Ketchum Area Rapid Transit cannot afford to serve the growing number of people who work in the resort community but are forced to live elsewhere because of the high cost of housing, said Crawford, who manages the system. Commuters crowd the otherwise rural Idaho 75 during rush hours, he added.

There are jobs in Twin Falls for unemployed people in the area, but they have no transportation to get to work, said Joseph Herring of the Region IV Development Agency.

“We want it very clear that this isn´t just a Boise city problem,” said Elaine Clegg, a Boise City Councilwoman and co-director of Idaho Smart Growth, a statewide organization that advocates public transportation, among other things.

On Thursday, the task force made presentations to transportation committees in the House and Senate as well as the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Lawmakers received what ValleyRide lobbyist Roy Eiguren called the most complete study of the state of public transportation in Idaho ever produced. ValleyRide is the transportation provider for Ada and Canyon counties.

The study found that Idaho is one of seven states that does not provide state funds for public transit. And 33 states have some sort of local option tax devoted to public transit.

Currently, Idaho transit agencies are funded mainly by federal dollars and local matching money that comes from individual governments. For example, ValleyRide gets money from the city of Boise to operate the bus service. The problem, transit providers say, is that funding may fluctuate wildly from one year to the next based on budget situations and council members´ decisions.

Lawmakers asked few questions Thursday. Advocates acknowledge that they face an uphill battle.

Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairwoman Dolores Crow, R-Nampa, said there isn´t a need for increased public transportation services yet.

“We have buses running around without very many people on them,” Crow said after the presentation.

The empty buses are an image problem, acknowledges ValleyRide Director Kelli Fairless. But they are empty, she says, because ValleyRide tries to provide service to all parts of Boise instead of just high traffic areas.

The agency is revamping routes. But Fairless and others also say more money would allow them to increase marketing of the service, provide more frequent and direct service and thus boost ridership.

Transit advocates are realistic that a funding option bill may not pass this year. At the least, they say they hope to elevate the issue to a point where it is studied by an interim legislative committee and discussed again next year.

“It´s not something that should be thrown on the shelf and forgotten about,” said Republican Sen. Cecil Ingram, of Boise, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “A lot of people would like to get out of their cars, but we just don´t have the system in place to do that.”

Patience is key, Eiguren said.

“It takes one or two or three sessions of the Legislature,” he said, “to build a coalition that will allow something to happen.”