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SSTTOP Waits for Green Light

aka State Street Transit and Traffic Operational Plan

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When Kathleen Lacey, a senior planner for the City of Boise, tells people about a proposal to expand State Street into seven lanes by 2035, it's usually met with a reaction somewhere between shock and awe. But the alternative is a real jaw dropper.

"All of our figures indicate that we would need nine lanes on State Street just to accommodate our growth," said Lacey. "If we don't go with expanded bus rapid transit, and if we don't get a HOV [high-occupancy lane], we would fill up nine lanes of traffic by 2035."

The Ada County Highway District has counted more than 30,000 vehicles on State Street on an average weekday, and a quick review of the traffic reveals thousands of single-passenger automobiles and very few buses.

"It's unsustainable," said Lacey. "In terms of traffic flow, we simply can't keep pace with the increase in population."

The numbers are daunting. According to a projection from the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, population near State Street will grow 93 percent by 2035. Imagine dropping 26,590 more cars into State Street traffic.

The mind-numbing vision of nine lanes along State Street was never seriously considered, but for nearly a decade, planners have been drafting more than a half dozen scenarios, each more complex than its predecessor. On March 31, Lacey and a team of transportation engineers from Kittelson and Associates unveiled a 100-plus-page analysis with an elaborate recommendation: expand State Street to seven lanes between 23rd Street and Eagle Road, introduce high-occupancy lanes for buses and multi-passenger vehicles, commit to new pedestrian and bike lanes, dramatically expand Valley Regional Transit's commuter bus system and build a system of bus bays, which allow buses to pull out of traffic near park-and-ride locations. Kittelson, with offices in Boise and seven other cities, was contracted by the City of Boise, ACHD and VRT to facilitate the State Street Transit and Traffic Operational Plan.

The SSTTOP was the highlight of the March 31 Boise City Council work session, but the real show-stopper was the price tag. More than a few council members' eyebrows arched when Kittelson Senior Engineer Andy Daleiden revealed costs totaling $423 million.

"Will any of us even be alive to see this?" Boise Mayor Dave Bieter asked. "Don't answer that. I'm joking."

Expanding to seven lanes would require miles of land acquisition, but Lacey insists that eminent domain is not on the table.

"Absolutely not," said Lacey. "But there are a couple of ways we can do this. In the short term, we could secure the setbacks [land acquisition] through new agreements when owners want to develop or redevelop their land. In the long term, we could secure some dedicated funds, through grants, to purchase the land."

As Daleiden sped through a fast-paced PowerPoint presentation, the issue of how to fund the massive project couldn't come soon enough for the council members.

"We don't even know if we can afford this," said Bieter. "That's the trouble with this whole exercise: the funding source."

Daleiden's presentation laid out a big assumption: 48 percent of the improvements could be funded through state and local revenues (gas and property taxes, vehicle registration and impact fees) and federal monies (Highway Trust Fund, grants and earmarks). If Daleiden's assumption is right, the cost would still have a funding shortfall of $217 million.

New Boise City Council Member Lauren McLean, who spent five years on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, pressed the funding question.

"How do we get there?" asked McLean.

Council Member David Eberle, an economist, leaned toward McLean and answered in a loud whisper.

"Local option tax," said Eberle, referring to the controversial concept of a voter-approved sales tax that could help fund such a project. Eberle, Bieter and the majority of the council support a so-called LOT, but the state legislature has blocked several bills that would allow LOTs in Idaho's large municipalities.

Moving the proposal into a passing lane requires partnership with several entities.

"We started with a memorandum of understanding in 2006," said Lacey. "The original partners were the cities of Boise and Garden City, Ada County, the Ada County Highway District and Valley Regional Transit. We're in the process of adopting a new MOU to include our original five, plus we've added Eagle, the Idaho Transportation Department, the Capital City Development Corporation and COMPASS."

The Boise City Council is expected to include its recommendations and changes to the plan by late May.

"Quite frankly, I'll be putting my teeth in a glass on my nightstand before I see this happen," said Council Pro Tem Alan Shealy.

"I may need you to stop here," Bieter said, asking Daleiden to cut short his presentation. "It's the funding part that could drive someone to drink."

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