It happened in July 2010. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter was hosting Jaialdi, the massive, all-things Basque festival that visits the City of Trees every five years. Bieter's special guests included Patxi Lopez, former Socialist Basque president, and Lopez's wife, Begona Gil, herself a councilwoman in Bilbao, Spain. And as Bieter was explaining how he governed nearly all of Boise, yet had little, if any, say over what happened from curb to curb on city streets, Gil was stunned.
"El alcalde sin calles!" exclaimed a half-amused, half-shocked Gil. "The mayor with no streets!"
Bieter smiles when he recalls his Basque counterpart's reaction. But the gap between the city of Boise and the Ada County Highway District, literally and politically, hasn't always been a joking matter. The mayor feels strongly that land use (which the city manages) and transportation planning (which ACHD manages) should be done together. And when they aren't, as is the case in Boise, Bieter said that "the system often becomes unworkable."
But wresting any authority from ACHD, which controls more than 2,100 miles of Ada County roads, won't be happening any time soon. So, considering that ACHD has some bold plans to alter Boise's streets--some of the biggest changes in anyone's memory--a packed house of city stakeholders was anxious to witness Bieter and ACHD Commission President John Franden break bread together at an April 23 luncheon, hosted by the Idaho Environmental Forum.
IEF emcee and environmental attorney Chris Meyer said he had received a congratulatory email from Steve Price, ACHD's general counsel, complimenting Meyer for getting Bieter and an ACHD commissioner to share the same podium.
"Great job in getting these men to your event," wrote Price. "But if this turns into a food fight, it will be your fault."
Which prompted Meyer to say that the only way he might prevent lunch plates being tossed around the room would be to serve Basque food.
"So Mr. Mayor, I hope you detected that hint of pimento in your chicken today," said Meyer.
Over the years, there have been several exchanges of cross words, particularly regarding ACHD impact fees, between Bieter and former ACHD President Sara Baker. But it turned out that on April 23, Franden and Bieter had more in common than not.
Franden, who recently announced his retirement after being elected to the ACHD board in 2002, 2006 and 2010, used the rare opportunity, in the presence of the mayor, to publicly promote the Downtown Boise Implementation Plan, his organization's blueprint to change how people move in and around Bieter's city.
Answering the obligatory question: "Why now?" Franden said simply, "We just had to do it because there's way too much going on right now," pointing to a list of high-profile changes to Boise, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, the Eighth and Main Tower, JUMP, the soon-to-begin City Center Plaza and a new multi-modal transit center.
The implementation plan will be fueled by $8.5 million, including pedestrian and bicycle improvements to the downtown core, and the conversion of as many as 10 one-way streets into two-ways.
"Honestly, I can't even remember when or why we turned some of our streets into one-ways," said the 66-year-old Franden, a Boise native.
And Boiseans won't have to wait for some of the promised change to being.
"This is going to happen really, really soon," said Franden. "We're talking about a matter of days."
As this edition of Boise Weekly was hitting newsstands April 30, ACHD was launching a pilot program--it could last anywhere from 30 to 60 days--that will reduce one lane of vehicle traffic from Main Street (the far-left lane from 16th Street to Broadway Avenue) and Idaho Street (the far-right lane from Broadway Avenue to 16th Street) and on Capitol Boulevard (the far-right lane from the Boise River to Jefferson Street). Replacing the traffic lanes will be one-way bicycle lanes, buffered by a string of white stick barriers, commonly known as "candlesticks."
ACHD crews have been burning the midnight oil this week, installing the candlesticks and painting new bike lanes onto the pavement. Cyclists will be free to begin wheeling their way in and around the downtown core on the newly buffered lanes beginning Thursday, May 1.
"A guy called me up to complain about what we're doing to Capitol Boulevard. And he absolutely raked me over the coals," said Franden. "He asked, 'What are you thinking?' But I told him that the responses following our March open house (BW, Citydesk, "Big Turnout, Robust Dialogue," March 14, 2014) were 4-to-1 in favor of this. Plus, this will be a pilot project. And that caller ended up telling me that he thought this was a pretty great idea."
And while Bieter said he supports much of ACHD's plan--and in particular more designated bike lanes and two-way streets--he's not a particular fan of Main and Idaho streets and Capitol Boulevard being used for the pilot project.
"I have learned, over time, to be careful about pilots," said the mayor. In fact, Bieter's chief of staff, Jade Riley, sent a letter to ACHD reiterating the mayor's concerns, and Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan told ACHD commissioners in person that, while city leaders supported the overall plan, they were worried that the pilot project wasn't long enough and was being implemented too quickly.
When Boise Weekly asked ACHD Vice President Mitchell Jaurena about Bieter's comments, he said his fellow commissioners took the mayor's concerns into consideration but had good reason to conduct the pilot in May.
"Quite simply, we're under time constraints. We want to get this done before construction work on Capitol gets under way; plus, if the pilot is successful, we could make it permanent along with some of that construction and reduce our costs," Jaurena told BW. "This is not being set up to fail, by any means."
As for the pending construction on Capitol Boulevard that Jaurena was referring to, motorists should take note that Capitol, from the Boise Depot down to the Statehouse, will undergo a major repaving this coming August and September.
Additionally, Jaurena said ACHD commissioners still had some flexibility on extending the pilot project.
"Right now, it's scheduled for May. But, by the third week of May, we may decide to extend the pilot through June so that we can get more public comment," he said. "I think within 30 to 60 days, we can find the information we need to see if the pilot is successful."
But everyone concedes that many people, particularly commuters, struggle with change to transportation systems.
"So yes, we need to consider some of that negativity as a factor when we look at this before we give it our most honest evaluation," said Jaurena.
And while Bieter agreed that change is a hard sell, it's also generational.
"Our new generation is actually spending less money on cars than any other generation," he said. "But I really don't think that people in Boise will have to choose between their cars and their bicycles. We'll have both. And over time, the people will have their way."