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Why is Boise City Council So Scared of a Successful Bus Route?

"It's almost cruel to put something out there and then have to take it away."

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There was every reason to be optimistic, even enthusiastic. Valley Regional Transit was ready to roll with its most ambitious project in years: a new bus route for an underserved, yet growing population, providing access to no less than six schools, Immigration and Social Security offices and the region's largest retail destination.

But on July 26, when it came time for Boise City Council members to decide whether to fund the route, reluctance was the watchword. In fact, more than one council member expressed pessimism.

"It's almost cruel to put something like this out there and then have to take it away. You're asking me to support a route that may go away next year," said Council Member Elaine Clegg.

"That's true," said Kelli Fairless, VRT executive director. "We don't know how the federal budget will play out."

Ironically, the roles were reversed, Fairless said. She's usually the pessimist in the room.

"I'm usually the last one that my staff has to sell a pilot route to," Fairless told BW. "They have to get it by me before I take to the council." But Fairless acknowledged council members' skepticism was healthy.

"I had a great appreciation for the discussion," she said. "I think the council members take very seriously the fact that we raise public expectations when we introduce a service like this."

The service requires $263,000 for its first year of operation. The funds were committed during the 2010-2011 budget process but not formally approved until July 26, when Fairless gave a final update to the Boise City Council.

"We've been here before," said Council Pro Tem Alan Shealy. "We have approved pilots before, but given the fact that possible huge cost cuts are on the horizon, if you believe in your heart of hearts that this could be different, then I'm willing to go with you."

But Fairless was cautious not to over-commit.

"What I can tell you is that we're carefully watching the federal-funding landscape," she said.

A federal budget agreement hammered out between President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders in April (averting a government shutdown) gutted $680 million from public transportation grants. And conventional wisdom is that more wheels will come off of transportation projects once Congress determines the details of $2 trillion in spending cuts from last week's debt-ceiling deal.

Consequently, in a Catch 22 moment, the Boise City Council was being asked to OK one-time funds to a much-needed project, knowing that future funding was, at best, a huge gamble.

"What we're really talking about here is, if you keep this [bus] line, you may have to cut another line," said Council Member David Eberle. "I don't see any scenario where there would be funding to save this route."

"But we deal with that reality every year," responded Fairless.

Eberle proposed a plan that put the future of the line squarely in the laps of potential riders.

"I'll tell you what," said Eberle, ready to deal. "I would support this right now, if you launched a campaign that told the people of Boise that there was a good chance that one route would stay and another route would need to be cut a year from now. And then we would watch the patrons truly fight for the right route."

Fairless said outreach was appropriate but an expensive advertising campaign was out of the question.

"I'd like to suggest a compromise motion," said Shealy. "I propose we secure the funding, but we need to leave it to the discretion of the director a ..." Shealy took a long pause. "What should we call it?" he asked rhetorically. "Let's call it a notification campaign."

But Clegg still expressed concern that even harder choices would need to be made if the route proved successful.

"I would like to see every council member here today show up to a public hearing, that I truly believe will be held next year, where we have to decide which route to cut," said Clegg.

Mayor Dave Bieter, sensing the tension in the room, tried to break the uneasiness with a friendly jab at absent Council Member Lauren McLean.

"I would just like to publicly commend Council Member McLean for not attending today's meeting," Bieter deadpanned.

But in the end, Fairless walked away from the July 26 meeting with funding approval. Now, she said, the hard work really begins.

"It probably sounds like launching a bus route would be an easy thing to do," she said. "You know, just get on the bus and go. But it's quite complicated."

Fairless and her VRT team are putting final touches on internal processes like route timetables and drivers schedules before beginning their external process like notification on their website, distributing fliers on buses and putting up some creative posters designed by students, a sector of the population that has been highly engaged in the process.

"About 14 students from Frank Church High School and Victory Academy participated in this project, practically from the beginning," said Fairless.

The process, which took the better part of two years, resulted in maps where bus lines were drawn, redrawn and redrawn again.

In the end, the complex process resulted in a fairly simple route: It begins at the Boise Towne Square Mall, goes south on Cole Road, west on Overland Road, south on Maple Grove Road and east on Victory Road, ending at the offices of the Boise School District before looping back.

Several schools (including Bishop Kelly, Frank Church, West Junior High, College of Western Idaho, Brown Mackie and Stevens Henager), major retailers (the mall, Lowes, Walmart), government offices (Social Security and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), and the region's largest cineplex (Edwards Boise Stadium 22 and IMAX) are all on the route.

"I think this has a pretty high probability of being successful," said Fairless. "These neighborhoods were serviced once before, and the route went away in 2005 but a lot has changed since then. The school district moved their offices out to Victory. The colleges are new and, of course, we're spending nearly $4 for a gallon of gas."

Fairless expects to use a little psychology and a bit of magic in the coming months. The psychology comes naturally. That was her major when she was a student at Boise State.

"It's all about human interaction," she said. "I use psychology every day."

But she keeps a bit of magic up her sleeve.

"Every year, we seem to pull more rabbits out of our hat," said Fairless. "I keep thinking I'm out of rabbits, but then we save another service."

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