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Getting On Board

Treasure Valley officials look to Salt Lake City for transit examples

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Public. Transit. System. Three little words with big implications for the Treasure Valley.

As the population across the area continues to explode, placing increasing stress on an already-packed road system, the idea of creating a viable valley-wide transit system has gained momentum. While the concept has growing support, it also faces many challengers who pose a very familiar and very powerful argument: Who is going to pay for it?

"It's not the transportation plan, it's the funding that's the heart of the whole issue," said Nancy Vannorsdel, executive director of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Funding has continued to be a sticking point for those seeking to create a transit system. A bill allowing local governments to go to taxpayers asking for a local-option sales tax to fund transit failed to make it out of committee during the last legislative session by three votes.

But transit supporters are hoping that seeing a working example of a transit system up and running in another Western city will start changing some minds.

The Chamber of Commerce sponsored a trip to Salt Lake City recently, in an effort to kick-start an educational campaign of sorts. Among the 15-member group were two valley mayors, three state senators, four representatives (including two who voted against the afore-mentioned committee bill) and staff from the chamber and Valley Regional Transit.

For the trip organizers, Salt Lake City offers enough parallels to Boise to make it a real-world example of where the valley is heading. The fact that it's a relatively isolated Western city, has similar geography—which leads to similar air quality issues—and has a conservative population base makes it Boise's older sibling.

Salt Lake City began an aggressive public transportation system in 1999, when the Utah Transit Authority built the city's first light rail line. That one light rail line has turned into two active lines, a commuter train scheduled to open in the spring, linking Pleasant View to the north with Salt Lake City, and plans for an additional four light rail lines by 2015.

The system was applauded during the 2002 Winter Olympics, when tens of thousands of people each day used the light rail to move between events, restaurants and hotels.

While ridership is now roughly 50,000 commuters per day, the system faced heavy criticism early on. "Initially, when we first brought up the idea of rail, there was a lot of opposition from local elected officials and some members of the general population," said Chad Saley, UTA spokesman.

At first, UTA attempted to get a referendum passed to pay for the first line, but it failed. Instead, the agency finagled funding from within, and built the line anyway. The first line stretched 15 miles between downtown Salt Lake City and Sandy, and ridership quickly outstripped expectations.

"Public support quickly, quickly changed, and even some local politicians turned around and admitted they were wrong," Saley said.

When the system is completed—including light rail to the airport and commuter rail to the south—Saley said daily riders are expected to average 150,000. Already, 20 percent of trips into downtown are made by rail, he said.

A second referendum to raise the sales tax by one-quarter of a cent in Salt Lake and Utah counties was approved last year by nearly 70 percent of votes.

Ray Stark, chamber vice president, said there are constitutional differences between the two states when it comes to funding a transit system, but there are still lessons to be learned.

"It needs to be a very collaborative process," Vannorsdel said.

The Chamber and other supporters are pushing for measures to lessen traffic woes and address increasingly poor air quality in the valley. She believes the problem is only going to get bigger.

Vannorsdel said 39 cars are added daily to Treasure Valley roads, according to the number of new license plates issued in the five-county metropolitan area in 2006.

Environmental Protection Agency standards allow only a certain number of days each year during which a population center can have unhealthy levels of air pollution. It's a threat that has been hovering over Ada County after weeks of yellow and orange air-quality alerts.

"If we reach non-attainment, everything stops," Vannorsdel said. "I don't think people have any idea how powerful that is." If the area is found to be in non-attainment, it could put federal highway funds at risk, as well as building permits, until the problem is dealt with, Stark said.

One thing the group learned from Salt Lake is the importance of options when it comes to transit. "There is no one option for transit systems," Stark said.

Ideally, he said the chamber would like to see a combination of commuter trains, light rail, street cars and buses to complement widened highways. While some criticize the existing bus system for low ridership, Stark and Vannorsdel said it's a matter of offering more frequent service to more areas to attract greater numbers of passengers.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, a longtime advocate of a rail system, joined the chamber excursion to Salt Lake. For him, the trip gave a reason to be optimistic that a similar system could work in Boise. "This is a Western city that made significant investments and is getting significant results," he said.

Sen. John McGee (R-Dist. 14) also joined the field trip. As the head of the senate transportation committee, McGee has seen numerous attempts at transportation funding. He, too, found Salt Lake's example intriguing.

"They're doing some pretty exciting things down in Salt Lake City," he said. "And what's most exciting for us is that it's a similar community in many ways ... The fact that they went out and had this vision for public transportation is something that we can look at. Whether or not we're at the point that it's feasible, that remains to be answered, but it's definitely not too soon to look."

While he likes the idea of rail for the valley, he thinks things have to begin with improving roads. After that, it's a matter of proving to both legislators and the public that a transit system can be funded and maintained responsibly.

Vannorsdel said the chamber and other supporters plan to continue the fight during the next legislative session, focusing on pursing a local-option sales tax, considering transit funding with roads, and learning more about the process of starting a state initiative.

She said it will be important to tackle the issue before it gets more out of hand, and costs even more to install. But thankfully, she said, Boise still has some wiggle room.

"There's always a light side and a dark side, and the light side is we're far enough behind the curve that we have other examples to look at and hopefully we do it right the first time," she said.

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