For the better part of a decade, there has been a debate over whether Boise should have a streetcar gliding through its downtown core. It was 2008 when Mayor Dave Bieter first pushed the idea of an east/west route, and despite several starts and stops along the way a number of high-profile city officials (including Bieter) are more bullish than ever on a streetcar. They all agree the new mass transit system should be a circulator, it's the mode that is still in question.
"Yes, you can absolutely assume the mayor is as excited about the possibility as ever before," said City of Boise Communications Director Mike Journee. "You can also include the City Council because in July, they said they preferred a streetcar, and they also agreed to a proposed route."
The route would be T-shaped, running east-west between First and 15th streets (think St. Luke's and the Linen District) and north-south between University Drive and Main Street (think Boise State University and City Hall).
The council is excited enough to dedicate $3.5 million (in addition to the thousands it has already invested) to keep the proposal on track: $1.2 million will come from the city coffers and an additional $2.3 million will come from the urban renewal agency Capital City Development Corporation. The money is earmarked to hire an outside firm to identify a streetcar funding plan—construction costs could approach $120 million—and estimate potential ridership. A study earlier this year indicated approximately 1,400 people per day would ride a downtown streetcar if it was free.
"We're following the lead of the city," said CCDC Executive Director John Brunelle. "We think it's a great potential project in terms of mobility and infrastructure. With all the new projects coming out of the ground, you can really see that parking your car once and using a circulator makes a lot of sense."
One of those responsible for raising those projects "out of the ground" is Boise-based developer Clay Carley, the man behind the remodeling of the Owyhee hotel apartments and who is currently planning to build an eight-story hotel on the corner of Front and Sixth streets.
"I think an affordable and functional circulator could do our downtown quite a bit of good. Yes, I support a circulator, but where the city and I diverge is that I disagree with putting rail in the ground," said Carley. "Honestly, I believe that rail-in-the-ground technology is going to be obsolete in 10 years."
Carley would like the city to consider a fixed streetcar alternative.
"Have you heard of Navya?" asked Carley.
Based in Paris, France, Navya has quickly accelerated to become one of the most prolific developers of driverless public vehicles in the world. Navya has launched autonomous public shuttle systems in Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia and, earlier this year, as a pilot program in Las Vegas. The vehicles, which can transport about a dozen passengers, are pretty spiffy—they look like something between a streetcar and a bus with plenty of headroom. They're 100 percent electric and are surrounded by several sensors and cameras to detect motions and obstacles.
"I've been sending links to Navya.tech [the company's website] to the city for about six months now," said Carley. "Why wouldn't someone at City Hall want to go check these out?"
Anyone inclined to dismiss Boise doing business with a foreign-made vehicle corporation should know that earlier this summer, Navya announced that it would begin manufacturing driverless vehicles in Saline, Michigan, its first North America operation.
"It looks like a rail-in-the-ground streetcar system could cost up to $120 million. An autonomous system could be a tenth of that cost. More importantly, operationally it would be so much less, when you consider the savings in fuel and personnel costs," said Carley. "Then, think about the options to extend the fixed route. You could extend a route in any direction, literally overnight. You sure couldn't do that with a streetcar."
Journee said the city is anxious to look at all alternatives.
"Autonomous vehicles came up in some of our focus group discussions," said Journee. "By the time we move forward with a circulator, an autonomous vehicle could be a viable option."
Carley was part of those focus group discussions.
"I think everybody thought they had to keep the ball rolling on the effort to get any kind of circulator by referring to a streetcar, but that math just doesn't work out for me," said Carley. "I'm against it, and I think a number of other downtown property owners are too. The autonomous vehicles? They look pretty great. I sure would want to take a closer look. Wouldn't you?"