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.
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.