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Bus Company Wants TIGER Grant

VRT competing with Boise, state for federal transportation funds

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The City of Boise is not the only Idaho entity waiting to hear from the feds on a major, competitive transportation grant called TIGER, or Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery. Boise, which requested $40 million toward building a downtown streetcar loop, is competing with Valley Regional Transit's $26-million request aimed at improving the bus system infrastructure, a $13-million application from the Ada County Highway District, as well as three requests totaling $170 million from the Idaho Transportation Department and two other Idaho projects.

The eight Idaho projects are up against 1,380 ideas from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and three U.S. territories, which want a combined $56.5 billion in funding.

Only $1.5 billion is available. While Boise's streetcar TIGER application is well known, there has been little reporting on the bus company's projects or the state's.

VRT, the regional transit authority, which controls public transportation projects in the valley, is requesting funds for a host of bus-related projects, including public transportation hubs in west Ada County and Canyon County, expanded park-and-ride facilities, new buses, new offices, and pilot routes in Garden City, along Ustick Road and in rural Canyon County.

"The gist of the project is to get all of the capital investments in place to really improve the east-west commutes," said Mary Barker, service planning manager at VRT. "It's basically our 10-year capital plan, all done at one time."

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter wrote a letter in support of the VRT grant, and Bieter spokesman Adam Park said the two applications, though competing for the same cash, are complementary.

"To have a successful transit system we need a streetcar and an improved bus system, so we hope that both are awarded," Park said.

The competitive TIGER grants, part of the Recovery Act, are a new way of doing business for the U.S. Department of Transportation. The money can be used for highways, public transportation, rail, port or other surface transportation and must have a significant impact on the national, regional or metropolitan network. There was no set format for the application, and the requests were put into one big pile, regardless of mode. Federal officials from all the transportation agencies are reviewing the applications. They will report winners in January.

"The criteria wasn't set, so it was not really easy to tell how they would be scored," said Toni Tisdale, a planner at the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, or COMPASS.

Tisdale said that she expects future federal funding opportunities to come in a similar competitive grant form.

"They like the nationwide competitive process," she said of the Obama administration's DOT.

But that makes it more difficult for agencies to plan or to get their hopes up.

"This is such an unusual opportunity that it just makes sense for the community to put in for as wide a variety of projects as we can and hopefully draw some money to the community," Barker said.

VRT is setting its sights beyond this first round of grants, however, requesting $5.5 million to study a future, high-speed transit connection between Canyon and Ada counties. The study will consider rapid bus routes along Franklin Road, Fairview Avenue and along the Boise cutoff, the existing rail corridor. It will also analyze light rail along the tracks and along Franklin, as well as commuter rail on the existing tracks.

The study is the first step in seeking federal funding for a high-speed transit project to connect the valley; COMPASS and VRT have already narrowed the route options down from an original list of 14 alternatives, said Charles Trainor, director of planning at COMPASS.

"There has been a lot of interest, particularly in the rail corridor, in doing something to preserve that option for the long term," he said.

VRT hopes that a federal grant for much of its infrastructure needs will free up local contributions for more bus routes and increased service. But the lack of a local option tax or some other dedicated funding source for transit in Idaho is a double-edged sword for the agency.

"It helps in that we probably have a greater need than some regions, but the federal government also looks to the fact that the local and the state governments are also investing in our system," Barker said.

ACHD is seeking TIGER funds to widen Franklin Road from Five Mile to Touchmark Way, though its request is below the $20 million recommended minimum for TIGER grants.

ITD wants $11.4 million to elongate the container dock at the Port of Lewiston, (Idaho's only seaport), $18.9 million for improvements to I-84 near Twin Falls and $139.1 million for a new Meridian Road interchange on I-84, as well as to expand the interstate to three lanes all the way to Karcher Road in Nampa.

The other Idaho TIGER grant applications come from Bannock County, for road and bridge repairs.