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Boise Misses First Streetcar Funding Go Round

Bieter: "We gave it our best shot."

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With the announcement yesterday of 51 winners of $1.5 billion in transportation grants, the U.S. Department of Transportation finally showed some of its cards as to how Obama administration transportation projects will be funded.

The DOT said grant applications were reviewed to determine if they provide:

• A state of good repair for our existing transportation facilities

• Enhanced economic competitiveness

• Safer streets and communities

• Environmental sustainability

• Enhanced community livability.

Boise did not make the final list with its proposal to fund the bulk of a downtown streetcar system. The city had requested $40 million in what were called TIGER funds, to help fund the nearly $60-million project.

But Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said that the director of the Federal Transit Administration's Region 10 said Boise had a strong application.

"Within the last couple of weeks, federal officials told us they were impressed with our application," Bieter said.

Four other streetcar projects were funded including expansions and improvements to existing lines in Portland and New Orleans and new urban streetcars in Tucson and Dallas. Those cities all have one thing in common, Bieter told Boise Weekly yesterday: a local option tax.

For many years, a group of cities and transportation authorities in Idaho, chiefly in the Treasure Valley, have attempted to get local option taxing authority through the Idaho Legislature. That would allow municipalities to implement their own sales or other taxes to pay for things like public transit.

In 2006, 60 percent of Tucson voters approved a half-cent sales tax hike to pay for the streetcar and other transit needs. Tucson's 3.9-mile streetcar will connect its downtown to a hospital, the University of Arizona, retail and entertainment centers as well as sites of future development.

The FTA also told Boise officials that a local funding mechanism was a factor in the decisions, but gave the city credit for finding alternative funding options.

The 2.3-mile downtown route for which Boise sought funding also connected downtown to a major hospital and to areas for future development, but the initial route left out a connection to Boise State, for which the city received much local criticism.

For the past few months, the city was waiting to hear if that plan would get the funding, but in some ways Wednesday's announcement took some pressure off the city.

"Without an application pending it does allow us to broaden the discussion," Bieter said.

In a few weeks the city will review an assessment of the north-south route, which Bieter said he considered three or four years ago, even driving the route to check his odometer.

Bieter said there will be one or two more applications for federal funds in the next 18 months and that he does not expect a project like the streetcar to happen overnight.

"It's rare for something of substance to happen the first time," Bieter said.

In that category he put farmworker minimum wage, which Bieter worked on and finally achieved at the State Legislature, libraries in Boise, which lost a 2006 bond election but eventually were built and have proven quite popular and the city's detox center which is now under construction after years of debate.

Bieter said he is ready for the downtown Streetcar Task Force to submit a report to the City Council, though he said a vote of the task force may not be necessary since funding is still up in the air.

"I want to hear from them but I think it's less important to have a specific vote," Bieter said.

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