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CLOGGED ARTERIALS: Reserve Street in Missoula is barely a decade old but is already over capacity. Photo by Emily Haas.

Traffic Perplexes New Western Communities

A century ago, Ustick, west of Boise, was a farming hamlet surrounded by apple orchards and served by a trolley car system. After World War II, Boise’s sprawl gradually subsumed the bucolic little burg. Running east-west between Interstate 84 and Chinden Boulevard, Ustick Road – once a graceful tree-lined two-lane thoroughfare – became clogged with cars and lined with strip malls featuring gun shops and nail salons, small office buildings, and, eventually, big-box retail stores (a 97,000 square foot Kohl’s department store stands at the corner of Ustick and Eagle Road).

Commute times into Boise lengthened from 15 minutes (the time it once took to ride the streetcar from Ustick to downtown) to 30 minutes and more, as traffic crawled along the narrow arterial.

The Ada County Highway Commission proposed to fix the traffic problem by dramatically widening the road, turning that once-picturesque country thoroughfare into a long field of asphalt. Boise city planners had another vision: to help Ustick regain its lost character with a boulevard-style byway, with planted medians and restricted left-turn points, public transit options, bike lanes and so on.

So it goes across the West on one of the most contentious issues facing the region: traffic. Several decades ago, few even had the word “commute” in their vocabulary; you simply left home shortly before you wanted to arrive at your destination.

But today, an aging and inadequate road system needs immediate repairs while the number of cars and trucks skyrockets, and construction costs soar. Annual vehicle miles traveled in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho doubled between 1995 and 2005. In Utah, the figure nearly tripled, according to the Federal Highway Administration. And local governments simply don’t have the money to do much about it — and when they do, they often can’t agree on how to proceed.

In Ada County, the highway commission (which is the only independently elected commission of its kind in the United States) was unimpressed with Boise’s aesthetic concerns and moved forward with its blow-it-out plan. The city argued to have a part in the design but lost when the case went to court.

Craig Quintana of the highway district said its motives were simple: to build a road large enough for the current and projected usage. “The city wanted a smaller road that wouldn’t be able to carry the volume,” he said. The district’s plan includes widening the entire 37-mile length of Ustick over the coming years from a two- and three-lane street into a five-lane major arterial.

The county is about three-quarters of the way through the $17 million, two-mile widening project, which will have no added public transit features (or provisions for them in the future), no bike path, no median, no more trees lining the shoulder, but a lot more asphalt.

In the aftermath, the city and county hired a panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute to make recommendations on its transportation planning process and goals for future road expansions.

The hope of the city, says Councilwoman Mary Ann Jordan, is that “Ustick will turn out to be the last example of really bad design standards.”

  NOWHERE TO WALK: Pedestrian- or bike-friendly roads can be casualties of budget-constrained projects. Photo by Emily Haas.

Motorists across the Mountain West are spending more and more time in their cars, at a rate that’s growing faster than most other regions. In its Annual Urban Mobility Report for 2007, the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M measured delay per traveler and the growth of delays between 1982 and 2005. Each of the 85 cities studied got a number grade — one through five, with five being the worst.

Colorado Springs earned “fives” both for delays and for delay growth, as did Denver and Albuquerque. Cities outside the region getting low marks include San Jose, Charlotte and Austin. Salt Lake City, despite its appearance of perpetual road construction, got average marks for delays and increases.

Traffic on the Colorado Front Range a few years ago deteriorated to the point where rail seemed like a good idea to 32 mayors in the Denver-Boulder metro area. The coalition of city leaders reached a consensus on the need for new transit options — a rare feat in such an individualistic land. The result is the FasTracks plan, which will link Denver and Boulder with a light rail system. (The new administration of Gov. Bill Ritter faces a severe road crisis even as it tries to complete FasTracks.)

The Mountain West, says Robert Dunphy, a senior fellow studying transportation and infrastructure at the Urban Land Institute, suffers from a combination of rapid growth, a scattered archipelago of urban centers and underinvestment in infrastructure.

“There’s the challenge of making the case for investments in infrastructure,” says Dunphy, “in a region that’s traditionally had a low-tax attitude.”

The other big issue is cost. Road projects in past decades didn’t roil the public because concrete, gravel, pavement and labor costs were cheap. In the last 10 years the cost of construction materials including steel and cement have soared, as has the price of petroleum products like diesel and asphalt oil. Overall, according to Ken Simonson, an economist with the Associated General Contractors of America, highway construction costs have risen between 25 percent and 40 percent over the past few years.

A report called Future Mobility in Colorado, which was produced by a Washington, D.C.-based transportation research group called the Road Information Program, said Colorado has 350 transportation corridors that need improvements. The lobbying group predicts a $149 billion funding shortfall for those improvements over the next three decades.

It’s the same all over. The Federal Highway Trust Fund — funded mainly by the 18.4 cents-a-gallon tax paid at the gas pump, which has not risen in 14 years — will be out of money within two years, with a $1.7 billion deficit at the end of 2009 and an $8.1 billion deficit the following year.

Irresponsibility toward the nation’s infrastructure is endemic to Washington, D.C. Congress took two years to pass a new version of the national highway and transportation bill, finally coming up with a $286.4 billion law in 2005 that was so pork-laden that it immediately became a Beltway joke.

And yet cities and counties of the Mountain West have hundreds of streets and minor highways like Ustick: former farm-to-market avenues lately carrying thousands of commuters. Ustick, for instance, isn’t the only road under construction in Boise. It isn’t even the largest project. It’s one of 170 projects slated for the area over the next five years, with an estimated total cost of $293 million.

  SUPER HIGHWAYS: Private toll roads and public transportation are possible solutions to the traffic conundrum, but they often lack public support or political will. Photo by Emily Haas.

The traffic congestion along Colorado’s Front Range may push up the collective blood pressure of the populace and cost millions in lost productivity, but one entrepreneur hopes to offer a pay-per-mile solution.

First known as the Big Slab and now tagged with the more euphonious moniker the “Prairie Falcon Parkway,” a proposed private highway in Colorado has gone through a number of incarnations since 1986. That’s when businessman Ray S. Wells first incorporated the Front Range Toll Road, specifying a 120-mile-long, 12-mile-wide strip of land through seven counties, paralleling Interstate 25 from just north of Denver almost to the Wyoming state line.

Locals opposed early efforts to build the Big Slab (Wells wanted to use eminent domain to force hundreds of residents to abandon their homes), as did environmentalists and state legislators, who had qualms about a major private road bisecting the region. Still, the Big Slab was revived in 2005 with the addition of a rail element. The package seemed just palatable enough to become a reality.

Toll roads, though, are less Western, even, than public transportation. The Colorado legislature, after all but endorsing the Big Slab, passed bills requiring the Prairie Falcon developers to produce an environmental impact statement and to involve the state transportation department, among other things.

State senator Debbie Stafford said, “It’s time to put a stop to this.”

Prairie Falcon’s lobbyist, Kathy Oatis gets apoplectic when asked about the legislature’s actions.

“You don’t cut a deal and shake somebody’s hand and then turn around and say we’re going to do a bill that totally undercuts everything we just agreed to,” she says. “Where’s their integrity? It’s very un-American.”

Actually, in the West, fighting over roads has become very American, right up there with complaining about taxes and prognosticating about the weather.

A two-lane blacktop road winding into Missoula’s South Hills, Hillview Way has become an unlikely scene of local controversy, protests and anti-government fervor.

“The existing road was laid out and constructed in the late 1970s,” says Steve King, Missoula’s director of public works, “and it was never designed to serve the neighborhood.”

Hillview Way has no shoulders, no drainage structures and no bike paths. In rush hour, thousands of commuters slowly creep down the road. In icy weather, cars sometimes slide off. One house got hit by cars twice, the second time in a fatal crash.

  For more information on the premiere issue of The New West magazine, click here or on the cover above.

As blocks of homes spread up and over the hills, Hillview Way became a main corridor for thousands of families, and it became clear that it wasn’t fit for the job.

What wasn’t so clear was how improvements to Hillview Way were to be paid for. The city set up its standard arrangement: the $3.3 million for the widening and other features would be borne by a special improvement district in which the adjacent property owners would shoulder the costs. In the absence of state or federal funds, it was City Government 101. But to those homeowners it looked like the few paying for the benefit of the many.

Linda Frey, a history professor at the University of Montana who became the most visible spokesperson for the opposition to the project, says, “It had inequities built into it from the start.”

Frey has become a familiar figure in controversies like Hillview Way. A serious, thoughtful woman and a prolific scholar who has made important contributions to the history of Enlightenment Europe and the French Revolution, she is also the gadfly who got the Hillview Way improvement shot down. She did so with a combination of old-fashioned political organizing and a series of statements that, according to city officials, were demonstrably false.

Her most outlandish claim was that people in the neighborhoods were going to lose their homes if the project went through. (It wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter.) The Hillview Way SID was voted down 8-4. The issue was cost.

The cost complaint has become a refrain, heard from homeowners, city councilmembers, state legislators, highway officials and federal bureaucrats. Every town, it seems, in the high growth zones of the Mountain West has a long list of streets and roads, as well as bridges and overpasses, not to mention other niceties such as sidewalks, bike lanes, traffic circles and medians.

Both Frey and King agree the Hillview Way improvements should be approved at some point in the future, with some as-yet-to-be-determined alternative funding structure.

“The need hasn’t changed,” says King. “It just gets more acute with each new development happening out there.”

–Richard Martin writes from Boulder, Colo. and can be reached at {encode=”” title=””}

About Richard Martin

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  1. I just want to point out that the Kohl’s on Ustick and Eagle has been up and running for over a year.

  2. Kudos to Richard for a good overview of the bane of traffic congestion. Studies prove that building new roads and highways do not provide any lasting improvements — traffic simply expands to fill the new capacity.
    A number of western communities are making strides with public transportation, notably Denver and Salt Lake City.
    However, you’ll never hear an encouraging word about public transportation from the infamous Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, which is fanatically opposed to the very idea of public transportation.
    New West readers may recognize the Institute as the employer of Jessica Peck Corry of Mad Voter infamy. The Institute, a hard-right bastion of second-rate conservative thinkers, also employs Randall O’Toole, who used to be a conservationist, but has since gone over the Dark Side, where he fulminates against public transportation in any form.

  3. Thanks Irwin. That’s been fixed.

  4. The problem is all the people that want to live in Ustick and want to work in Boise. Urban sprawl happens because everyone wants the best of both worlds. They want the quiet neighborhood away from pollution, noise, and crime but they want all the amenities of a big city at their disposal as well. If you want to reduce traffic, live were you work and have no more than two children.

  5. There’s a catchy little advertising jingle for a farm/ranch-oriented store in the Boise area: “There’s a price you pay, to get away.” As the guy sings, pastoral images of “Heaven’s Half-Acre” flow languidly across the TV screen.

    Who WOULDN’T like living out on a little gentleman ranch, out in the country?

    Of course, the JOBS are nowhere near that place. (Nor is public transportation, or ANY practical transportation option, other than single-occupant vehicle.)

    I always assumed the gas and frustration of commuting was the “price you pay,” that the guy is singing about.

    Most of us are more realistic about where we live. My father built his house literally within sight of his office (in Boise). He alternated between car, bicycle and foot transportation. It’s very liberating to have various options like that. I learned from him, and have never lived farther than a bike-ride from where I work.

    If it weren’t for “collateral damage” – the near-in yards that get “eminent domained” for wider roads and the pollution that all of us breathe regardless of our personal transportation choice, I’d say “Screw em. If they want to live 25 miles from work, and sit in bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic five days a week, 2 or 3 hours a day… that’s the price you pay!” Unfortunately, all of us pay the price, and particularly those folks who lost their front yards to the five-lane.

  6. I agree with that. We can’t just say, ‘go enjoy your country living,’ anymore. It’s country living if one is self-sufficient. It’s sprawl if everything one needs is many (car-dependent) miles away. In Missoula, there is a proposal to turn 2-lane Russell St. into a 5-lane. This 5-lane proposal is being heavily opposed by many people and groups.

    One way to make the road better is to: improve the 2-lane with a center turn lane in some spots, landscaped turn pockets in other spots, add in bike lanes and sidewalks, double public transport to 15 minute headways and extend to 11pm, replace several stop lights with modern single lane roundabouts, initiate bike stations and car share, connect the urban trails, and so on.

    The Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation is working on these issues and we would be interested in hearing other people’s solutions. Our email is