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The proposed streetcar in downtown Boise has generated a lot of comment and controversy. But even with all the news coverage and discussion there still seem to be a number of questions. I try to get to the most important ones in a series of trolley FAQs: Just where exactly is Boise getting the $60 million to pay for this thing? Earlier this year President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law. As part of that Act, the U.S. Department of Transportation is making $1.5 billion available to state and local governments through the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Discretionary Grants Program. TIGER grants can be used for most any kind of transportation related project, but it must also achieve certain outcomes such as increasing livability, sustainability, economic competitiveness, and job creation. Grants will be announced as soon as possible after September 15, 2009, but not later than February 17, 2010. If the City of Boise gets the grant those funds will partially cover the start-up costs. To generate the remaining monies needed they are considering the establishment of an LID or Local Improvement District. Under the LID, the City would levy an additional tax on businesses along the streetcar route. There is still no consensus among business owners as to whether there is support for the creation of an LID, but Idaho state law 50-2601 allows Idaho municipalities to create LIDs (or BIDs - Business Improvement Districts) with a simple majority vote of the Council. The Mayor and Council will then have to cobble together funds from the City's general fund and CCDC to pay for ongoing operations.

Boise Trolley FAQs: Our Future as America’s Most Livable City

The proposed streetcar in downtown Boise has generated a lot of comment and controversy. But even with all the news coverage and discussion there still seem to be a number of questions. I try to get to the most important ones in a series of trolley FAQs:

Just where exactly is Boise getting the $60 million to pay for this thing?
Earlier this year President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law. As part of that Act, the U.S. Department of Transportation is making $1.5 billion available to state and local governments through the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Discretionary Grants Program. TIGER grants can be used for most any kind of transportation related project, but it must also achieve certain outcomes such as increasing livability, sustainability, economic competitiveness, and job creation. Grants will be announced as soon as possible after September 15, 2009, but not later than February 17, 2010.

If the City of Boise gets the grant those funds will partially cover the start-up costs. To generate the remaining monies needed they are considering the establishment of an LID or Local Improvement District. Under the LID, the City would levy an additional tax on businesses along the streetcar route. There is still no consensus among business owners as to whether there is support for the creation of an LID, but Idaho state law 50-2601 allows Idaho municipalities to create LIDs (or BIDs – Business Improvement Districts) with a simple majority vote of the Council. The Mayor and Council will then have to cobble together funds from the City’s general fund and CCDC to pay for ongoing operations.

Why do we need a trolley, anyway? What we need is better bus service, or congestion reduction on I-84 between Nampa and Boise.
The most important thing to consider in any policy debate is the objective of the policy. The Mayor/Council’s objectives are stated clearly on the Boise Streetcar website: “A streetcar would boost economic development in Boise’s downtown core, increase the “livability” of downtown, relieve traffic congestion and reduce the city’s collective carbon footprint.”

This is not a transportation project; it is an economic development project. When it comes to economic development and rail vs. buses, transportation planners are in general agreement on several points. First, the permanence of rails and the related infrastructure is what increases property values along transportation routes, not the mere existence of a route. Bus routes can change at any moment – it’s just a matter of moving a sign. A rail stop is more permanent, and generates higher property values for building owners and businesses. Second, in general, people prefer to ride rail transportation over buses.

As a transportation project, the goal of the streetcar is to move people from one end of the City to another in a convenient fashion. There are over 40,000 jobs in Boise’s downtown core and those workers run errands, go to lunch, and go to meetings throughout the day. The streetcar will enable more of that to take place and reduce car trips in the city.

This project is only part of a larger rail vision for the city and the Valley. Eventually, the streetcar would be expanded to run up Capital/Vista serving BSU and the Boise Depot. Additional westward routes would expand the line to the 30th and Main master planned area of Boise; eastward expansions would go out past MK Plaza and Park Center.

If Senator Crapo is able to get funding for the re-establishment of Amtrak’s Pioneer Line, we would then have a system that could carry people in from Nampa, drop them at the Depot, then take them to virtually any part of downtown from 30th street to Park Center. So that’s the vision.

We used to have a Trolley and it didn’t work. Why on earth would we do this again?!
Not true. Boise and the Valley had an extensive rail system that operated from 1891-1928, and it served the public quite well. Streetcar lines ran through all of downtown Boise, and the Interurban Lines ran out to Collister, Pierce Park, through Eagle, Star, Middleton, to Caldwell, Nampa, Meridian and back into Boise. Like many rail systems across the globe, however, the system ran into financial difficulties which led the owners to shut it down in 1928.

Art courtesy of Adele Thomsen, Nick Casner and Valeri KiesigPhoto courtesy of Adele Thomsen, Nick Casner and Valeri Kiesig

This of course coincided with the rise of the automobile. The car was not immediately well received, but soon gained favor as the rail infrastructure fell into disrepair. At this time too, the city planning profession was young and very preoccupied with relieving congestion in city centers. They saw providing more space to cars and wider roads as the way to make that happen. That is hardly the prevailing theory in planning practice today.

What are other places doing about rail?
The Mayor points to 10 cities that have a streetcar, and another 3 dozen or so that are considering building some sort of rail based circulator. The Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) has written a couple of pieces poo-pooing the proposed Boise system because our conditions are not like those found in Little Rock, AR, a system Mayor Bieter points to as a success. The IFF makes some good points if we view the proposed streetcar as a transportation system. But 1) it’s too early in the build out of the system to judge whether the streetcar makes sense (of course it does in the wider scheme that I outlined above); and, 2) this is an economic development project. What the Mayor needs to demonstrate is that there will be a net positive return on investment for the city and the local landowners. Current academic literature shows extremely high rates of return on fixed-rail investments.

This is one reason regions are looking at rail transit. One of the most famous examples is Portland, OR, which has an international reputation for its rail transit operated by Metro (a regional governing body). I would posit that our neighbor to the south, Salt Lake City, will one day be much the same as Portland. But the ability of those cities and regions to raise finances for operations far exceeds Boise’s. Boise has no ability to create “local option taxes” to fund transportation. It is also not likely that though 50% of the state’s GDP comes from the Boise-Nampa MSA, that the state will ever invest in rail though that is exactly who pays for the rail line that runs from Sandy to Ogden (the Utah Transit Authority). That leaves us with a lot of work to do from a governance standpoint if we are ever to get any of this to happen.

Do I support the trolley/streetcar?
Yes. I think that it is a good first step in developing transportation infrastructure for this region that we will need in the next 40 years. Can we do everything immediately? Nope. Have I seen evidence that property values will increase along the streetcar line more than enough to offset the taxes levied by an LID? No. There are still many questions and details to sort out. But I do commend the Mayor and Council for exercising LEADERSHIP on an issue that is critical to our future.

And what about simply funding Valley Regional Transit (VRT) to a greater extent so that we can have better bus service? The federal funds available through TIGER and other ARRA funds cannot be used for that and cities have no way to raise revenues to pay more for bus service. Cities facing reduced revenues are cutting back their payments to VRT which means bus service is going to get worse in the Valley long before it gets better.

The streetcar debate opens the door to so many policy questions – policy debates we need to have. So even if we don’t get the TIGER grant, I’m glad to see so many people talking about transit, taxes, governance, and our very future as America’s Most Livable City. It would be unfortunate to get to 2050 only to lament, “I (Boise) coulda been a contender.”

Chris Blanchard is a Ph.D. student in the acclaimed urban studies program at Portland State University where his research focuses on urban planning and economic development.

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20 comments

  1. Blanchard emphasizes that the streetcar is an economic development project, and NOT a transportation project. And as such, if the mayor and his cronies can figure out a way that it’s bought-and-paid-for by the beneficiaries… the businesses along the route.

    (The oft-touted “TIGER” funds are being competed for by muliple proposals, and this whole ongoing discussion is therefore likely a moot point. But streetcar supporters must also be “pork” supporters to buy in; it’s just more money that the feds don’t have, and that our kids and grandkids will have to repay with interest someday. From a transportation standpoint, a much-better way to spend Magic Fed Money would be to further subsidize the bus system.)

    One glaring difference between the proposed Boise streetcar and the comparison-models in Portland and the SLC area is… the other models are served by multiple “park and ride” type facilities, and other places where it is practical for users to initiate their rail travel. (Correct me if I’m wrong – I’m NOT an expert.) By comparison, the Boise streetcar has essentially no parking for users, and would thus have essentially no positive impact on traffic congestion, etc.

    Another source of a LOT of good information (from somebody with a contrasting opinion to Blanchard’s) can be found here:
    http://noboisestreetcar.blogspot.com/

  2. So sorry! Proofreading and correcting…

    [if the mayor and his cronies can figure out a way that it’s bought-and-paid-for by the beneficiaries… the businesses along the route] … then I might be convinced.

  3. A recent review of transit data reveals that transit ridership has declined over the past twenty years in over 2 out of 3 urban areas with rail transit. The same review also showed that regions with bus only transit were much more likely to have transit ridership grow as fast or faster than driving than regions with rail transit. Myth: Rail transit promotes local investment and redevelopment. Reality: Development along rail lines usually requires additional subsidies. Myth: The automobile destroyed urban rail trolley systems. Reality: Buses are so superior to rail transit that almost every transit company in the U.S. converted street cars to buses as the street cars wore out during the 30’s and 40’s. Myth: 1 rail line can carry as many people as a twelve lane freeway. Reality: With the exception of New York City Subways, no rail transit line in the country carries as many people as even 1 freeway lane.

  4. Bikeboy I think that you and I are in agreement. Having not seen the application the City filed I don’t know exactly how they justified this project to the feds, but I myself think it is a tough sell as an economic development project, which is what the TIGER program calls for.

    As a transportation project, ALL this is designed to do AT THE MOMENT is CIRCULATE people once they are downtown. It *could* become part of an important piece of a transportation system in the future, but if it is built it will only be a downtown circulator until as you point out we get more pieces to the puzzle (commuter rail, park and rides, etc.).

  5. Mickey – I think there are lots of good arguments against this project but you will have to help me with your (O’Toole’s) logic.

    First, there is no policy option on the table to pay for more bus service. So opposing the streetcar on the grounds that what we need is more bus service presents a false choice.

    Second, comparing “rail,” of which there are numerous types, with bus service is like comparing cars with skateboards. Cars and skateboards are transportation solutions to two different transportation problems as are bus and rail transport.

    Now, the economic development potential of the project is probably a good area to question. I have not seen the mayor’s calculus on this so I don’t know how he arrived at his conclusions. But as I hinted I think it is likely that the biggest economic development impact from this project will come far down the road when and if the 30th Street master plan ever comes to bear.

  6. The most cost effective transportation option in terms of cost per passenger mile should be on the table. Anything less is reckless irresponsibility when America owes a couple of trillion bucks to China. Secondly your idea that bus and rail are solutions to different transportation problems is sophistry pure and simple. The primary job of America’s transit systems should be to provide effective, efficient mobility to transit dependent people, which is less than 10% of the population, not to attract people who can drive, out of their automobiles supposedly because transit is more sustainable than automobile travel.

  7. ADR, your link to the O’Toole piece doesn’t work. Please post again? Thanks.

  8. No way will Boise get TIGER money. Too much competition for that “free money” stolen from others someplace else.
    The question really needs to be, if Boise is so intent on a trolley, then raise the local taxes by however many millions and see how long the current elected officials stay in office. If the taxpayers who will ride the system and benefit from it won’t ante up, then it’s yet another redistribution from someone else’s wallet. It’s like the 260 bucks a seat on the Pioneer. Nuts.

  9. Dave: I am sure that the TIGER funds are WAY oversubscribed so the likelihood of getting them is small; you are probably correct. Another thing that we need to know is just what the plan is to expand this system, i.e., where would the money come from to build the lines to Park Center, Vista, and 30th? And where is the money going to come from to support those lines over time? Good questions . . .

  10. Just a follow up on sources. When I say rail and bus are different, I use sources such as this: http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~vuchic/

    Some of the other sources cited in the comments here come from here: http://ti.org/antiplanner/

    I recommend becoming familiar with both.

  11. The critical piece that makes a Boise trolley system potentially viable (in the future) is to secure use rights for the existing Boise Spur rail line and a portion of the main UP line to run circulator railcars connecting the now and future spawling SW Idaho communities of Boise, Caldwell, Nampa, and Kuna.

    Ever see the line up of cars on I 84 or HWY 20 streaming between these city’s? Acqusition and development of a intra City circulator gets us all working better together for a greener valley and leaner reliance on the car. With the big piece of the transit system in place, our communities, leaders and existing infrastructure would be primed for the next growth wave as well.
    No doubt also, chances for public funding success would be greater. Consider the potential benefits measured across nearly half a million people, tens of thousands of businesses, four cities two counties, and too many other taxing district to mention.

    No doubt a regional circulator would create a few good jobs and new business opportunities (something for everybody). Just think what could be saved in oil, gas, highway wear and tear, and the need to keep adding Freeway lanes. That means more discretionary money for other things. Also, what a regional circulator could do to reduce highway emissions for a region already known for non-attainment of air quality standards. Plus, acquisition of the rail coridoor, creates a future potential rails with trails bike corridoor, which could equally lower rates of heart attack.

    A regional circulator probably has a whole lot more potential tax appeal for the business community and citizens. Politically, it should be doable, especially as Boise City already owns about 18 miles of the spur line to the southeast of Micron.

    Yes the trolley idea is cool, but Boise is many years from having the demand and tax base associated with a densely built-up downtown and near downtown growth and development that involves many new residential units and high rise office towers. When Boise turns that corner, the trolley should be fully planned and built into the City’s, and maybe even ACHD’s, capital funding and operating costs.

    Let’s put a focus on the pack, and not on the big dog or its tail. After all, that’s the critical concept behind the Valley Wide planning Study “Blueprint for Good Growth.”

  12. The news also broke a couple of days ago that the CCDC and City of Boise have ALREADY spent over a million dollars trying to get the streetcar project off the ground.

    This is while other projects and expenses go unfunded and the city has a 9+ million deficit.

    This is just a small indication of what the future holds if this project is allowed to go through.

    http://noboisestreetcar.blogspot.com/2009/10/boise-city-ccdc-have-already-spent-over.html

  13. The present generation of control freaks, self identified as “smart growth”, actually neo-urban romantics combine the dark sides of two conflicting western traditions. The Enlightenment and Romanticism’s darker decedents of fascism and central planning make up the core of “smart growth” ideology. Central planning, descended from the enlightenment and “visioning” descended from the Romantic tradition attempt to produce a universal view about matters on which there can be no universal agreement. The resulting plan, therefore coerces more people than those who willingly go along with it. “Smart Growth” forces the majority to live and transport themselves in a way they would not choose if given the choice. All those people must be coerced into making second best choices. They lose their property rights and most of their liberty. Of course the control freaks claim that they are saving humanity from an “unsustainable” dystopic, chaos. The neo-urban romantic, control freak, planners claim that our population, consumption, wealth and technology are combining to destroy the planet or will do so in the future, unless, of course, “environmental planners and carbon counters” take control and “sustainably” manage our lives in order to “save the planet”.

  14. We should expect no less of a strenuous argument for the streetcar from the writer who is a assistant to the Boise City Council.

    What we would not expect, and what also has occurred, is that scores of Boiseans attended the streetcar information display sponsored by the city. Overwhelmingly, we supported the idea of a streetcar, but came away squarely against the poorly thought out plan.

  15. Howard, Kenosha and Little Rock are completely different dynamics than Boise and their own ridership stats tell a completely different story. In 2007 the Kenosha streetcar carried 62,643 passengers, or 173 per day.

    The Kenosha streetcar, like the Little Rock one, is a “heritage” streetcar that is NOT what is being proposed for Boise. There is a distinct difference in that heritage lines are more like an amusement park ride than a transportation solution, and they are only in place to support carting people very short distances to museums and other public attractions. Also, the same thing happened in Kenosha that happened in Little Rock – the development came first, the streetcar came afterwards.

    The Boise streetcar is not only being touted as a development attractor, but also a transportation solution AND a tourist attraction that, according to Mayor Bieter, will pay for itself many times over. What he ISN’T saying is that a streetcar will completely and permanently change downtown Boise. We will have over 2 miles of overhead wires strung between poles and buildings, a streetcar that will have to negotiate 28 traffic signals less than 1/10th of a mile apart, and either it will have to shut down during downtown events or the events themselves will have to be moved because the streets are blocked off. In addition, the development attraction claims are patently ridiculous because #1 over 1/3rd the route is historic homes and buildings that will most likely never be further developed and #2 there are ALREADY large development projects scheduled for much of downtown, some of which will break ground in January of 2010.

    The whole notion of it being a transportation solution is laughable as well. The entire Boise bus system only carries 3300 riders per day average. The proposed streetcar route goes nowhere, comes from nowhere and connects to nowhere making it toylike. While I am fully aware that public transit in Boise needs to be addressed, they are putting the cart before the horse by not taking care of the existing unmet needs – sixteen of which are already defined in their last transit study (and not one of them is a streetcar).

    The whole streetcar concept is a very poor fit for Boise, no alternatives have been even looked at, and only 4 people are needed to make the decision about not only spending the $60 million initial cost but committing the city to tremendous long-term debt when it is already running a deficit.

  16. Again well said, ADR. Trolleys became obsolete 70 years ago because they were the least cost effective urban transportation . They still are. Unfortunately there is a faith based belief among the the “new urbanest” , “smart growth” true believers that demands to bring trolleys back at any cost because they are so quaint, picturesque, cute and cuddly.

  17. You could argue that San Francisco’s cable cars are so commercially successful that every hilly city in the U.S. ought to have a cable car line but you would be obviously nuts if you did. The entire Trolley thing is an expensive, nostalgic, sentimental attempt to return to the pre-auto era.

  18. Streetcar for Boise – Excellent Idea!!

    Design, Route & Plan – Poorly thought-out, ill conceived, serves no one.

  19. Micky: So you read the engineering reports prepared by URS, and the downtown mobility study?