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Something in the Air

Boise may see momentum on anti-idling campaign

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In the wake of an ineffective effort to sway citizenry to support a downtown streetcar in 2009, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter explained what, if any, lesson was learned. After giving a detailed and rather long answer including polling data, strategic partnerships and economic forecasting, he took a long breath.

"My job is not to do what's popular," said Bieter. "My job is to do what's right and make it popular."

One of Bieter's barometers in determining what is "right" is Boise's Citizen Survey Report, a biennial gauge of wants, needs and challenges. The $35,000 study conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, a global market research firm, surveyed 550 adults (with a margin of error of about 4 percentage points).

The fresh-off-the-presses 2010 edition included some expected trends: concerns about the economy, public transportation and urban sprawl. But several opportunities were also revealed: support for a second Foothills levy (60 percent), support for a local option sales tax (56 percent) and a call for stricter limits on panhandling (78 percent).

Tucked deep inside the report was possibly the biggest surprise. Air quality registered the greatest increase in positive ratings over every other quality-of-life metric. But that's not to say that the ozone is anywhere near where Boise's air quality expert thinks it needs to be.

"The answer is clearly 'no,'" said Beth Baird.

Baird's official title is air quality program coordinator but her colleagues call her Boise's air quality champion.

"Beth spends a lot of time pouring over air quality data," said Vince Trimboli, the city's public works community relations supervisor. "And when she's not working on research or outreach, she's the coordinator of the Treasure Valley Clean Cities Coalition."

TVCCC has impressive private/public stakeholders: Ada County, Allied Waste, Boise State, Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Power, Intermountain Gas, Stinker Stations, Stoel Rives Law Offices and the University of Idaho. The coalition promotes alternative fuels, fuel economy and idle reduction.

Idling of vehicles has long been a hot topic of debate. For each driver running his or her engine to warm up his or her car, there is someone saying that the resulting CO2 emissions are choking us. For each delivery driver making quick stops, there's a study saying even brief idling is wasting huge amounts of money.

But municipalities across the United States have legislated against idling at their own peril.

"I've done quite a bit of research on ordinances and campaigns in other cities," said Baird. "There are some successful programs, but honestly there are a lot of unsuccessful programs."

Whether or not a new anti-idling ordinance in Ketchum is successful is probably too early to tell, but only three months into enforcement that city has already made a major change.

"Yes, they dropped the fine. That's true," said Craig Berry, executive director of the Environmental Resource Center, advocate for Idaho's first anti-idling ordinance.

Simply put, the new Ketchum law reads that a vehicle cannot be left running "solely for the comfort of the driver or passengers." It impacts all personal and commercial motorists but exempts vehicles left running while stopped at traffic lights or construction zones. Following a 12-month trial (more than 400 warnings were handed out), Ketchum police began ticketing violators in November. It didn't take long for some push back.

"One hundred dollars was a pretty stiff first-time violation," said Ketchum Sgt. Nathan Taylor. "And $300 for every violation thereafter was simply too high."

As a result, Ketchum officials quickly lowered the $100 fine to $25 and the $300 fine to $52.

"I think they wanted the penalties to be more in line with parking fines," said Berry. "But I still think it has enough teeth. If someone is hit with a fine for idling, they're going to start turning off the ignition."

Don't expect any fines in Boise, or an ordinance or a program for that matter.

"No. Definitely not a program. We're at a very, very, very early stage," said Trimboli. "It's easy to throw an outreach campaign together with good intentions, but this should be carefully crafted. This is very early."

Baird and Trimboli have begun listening to commercial drivers and representatives from neighborhood associations (Boise has 35 neighborhood associations). They discussed possible signage and effective messaging.

"I think people would rather learn about idling versus a do-this-or-we'll-bring-the-hammer-down," said Trimboli. "People simply don't want to be told what to do. We'll have greater success if we give people the opportunity to understand the importance of this issue."

In the next month, Public Works is expected to update the mayor and City Council on its findings and ask for some direction. Ideally, an outreach campaign could be unveiled later this year.

"But we're still early in the process," said Trimboli. "Did I say this was early?"

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