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Training wheels

Boise to put tracks on the ground, give state a swift kick in the caboose

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To its passengers, the trolley will be a more pleasant means of getting from St. Luke's Regional Medical Center near First Street to Rite Aid at 15th, which is now a significant walk, an easy bike ride or a lame drive.

But to city planners, streetcar developers in Portland, Ore., and maybe to downtown property owners, steel track means thousands of eyeballs rolling by their buildings throughout the day. Those eyeballs could become incentive to build "mixed-use development." Like some west-side multi-story lofts with a smoke shop and deli at street level and a little sign shop on the alley.

The latest route for Boise's future streetcar, as proposed by a pair of downtown committees. - URS CORP.
  • URS Corp.
  • The latest route for Boise's future streetcar, as proposed by a pair of downtown committees.

The proposal for a downtown streetcar, announced by Mayor Dave Bieter in his State of the City address earlier this summer and part of various urban plans for nearly a decade, has at least two, if not more, rationales behind it: Are city officials interested in moving people around downtown or encouraging sensible urban development? Or both?

"With a streetcar project, that is the question," said John Cunningham, a former Southwest Idaho transportation planner who now works in Northern California. "Or it's the answer."

Cunningham, who helped develop the most recent regional transit plan when he worked at the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, or COMPASS, said that a streetcar project might not be viable if conceived only for transit or only for development purposes. But given the right mix of funding—mostly support from property owners along the route—a streetcar can be very successful for a place like Boise, Cunningham said.

Bieter is counting on just that type of funding, in the form of a Local Improvement District, to make his call for bringing back the streetcar a reality.

"The attractiveness of it for us is that we could potentially do it without federal funding, without state funding and in a reasonable amount of time," Bieter said. "We'd be hopeful that people would see the advantages of it, that it works," he said.

Bieter said the idea for a streetcar is equal parts transit and development with a little bit of politics thrown in.

"The hope is it builds momentum to get a broader public transportation system done," he said.

Plans for Boise's streetcar are much further along than Bieter's State of the City address indicated. A pair of committees aided by a federal grant for a multi-modal center—a highly designed, off-street bus depot with bathrooms, bike racks and sandwiches—has already completed an initial study, which includes maps and rough costs. On Monday, the Downtown Technical Advisory Committee approved the report, prepared by Portland planner Bob Post, and handed the details over to the city and its urban renewal agency, the Capital City Development Corp. The next report ordered will be a feasibility study, with an eye to rolling out the street cars in about four or five years.

Post said Boise is one of about 80 cities, 40 of them serious players, now looking to streetcars for their development potential.

"Nobody's claiming that it creates development where the economics wouldn't otherwise support it," said Post, a planner and architect who worked for Portland's transit system a decade ago and now consults for URS Corp. URS, a global engineering and construction firm, has worked extensively in railway design, including on the Portland, Tampa, Fla. and Seattle streetcar systems.

Post said that streetcars fit a new urban model for many cities.

"It's a combination of higher interest in mixed-use development and more housing either in, or close in, to downtowns," Post said.

Bieter calls it "development-oriented transit" and CCDC, which is tasked with figuring out how to pay for the streetcar, pitches it as a way to connect different parts of downtown.

"What really makes a downtown economy work is a variety of uses near each other," said Mike Hall, development director for CCDC. "Anything you can do to make uses closer together increases opportunity for that synergy."

City council member Elaine Clegg, who works for Idaho Smart Growth, said laying track downtown has the potential to double the capacity of urban Boise in a very efficient manner.

"It's been discovered through experience that if that circulator is steel wheeled ... then people who own land along that route realize that they can do different things with their land than they would be able to if there was just a bus running by," Clegg said.

Also sitting on the committee planning Boise's future transit scenario is Carter MacNichol, a principal at Shiels Obletz Johnsen Inc., the firm that built and now runs Portland's streetcars. Post took officials from CCDC, the Downtown Boise Association and other local planners who sit on the Downtown Technical Advisory Committee on a recent trip to see different types of transit centers in Oregon and to test Portland's streetcars and other forms of public transit unavailable in Idaho.

A $9 million federal grant will pay for Boise's transit center, now planned for a half-block lot on 11th Street between Idaho and Bannock streets owned by Jim Tomlinson, who also sits on the advisory committee.

If a federal environmental review is approved, possibly in a matter of weeks, negotiations with Tomlinson and then design of the new transit center will begin.

The streetcar proposal dovetails with the transit center, running west along Idaho to 17th Street, back east on Bannock, then east of the transit center on Main Street and back on Idaho. That proposed route has been analyzed for its suitability, but now city officials have to start talking to property owners along the line to see if they are interested in ponying up the funds.

"There's a lot of legwork to be done there," Bieter said. "The lines on the map right now may be very fluid."

Future phases of the streetcar line would extend out Main Street to 30th Street and south from downtown to Boise State, along Broadway or up to the Boise Depot.

Cunningham, reflecting from his new job in Contra Costa County, Calif., wondered why the city is not pushing the Boise State phase first, imagining a blue, Bronco-emblazoned train carrying fans from the transit center or downtown bars to the big game.

"There's more of a transportation need connecting those two," he said.

But Cunningham acknowledges that the east-west downtown route may net more private sector buy-in and be a less expensive, possibly higher profile start.

Phil Kushlan, executive director of CCDC, called the map and the entirety of the streetcar discussion "100-year transformative decisions."

Or as CCDC special projects manager Scot Oliver put it: "We here locally can do it. We can't do local-option taxes. We can't fix the highway to Canyon County. But we can do this."

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