I recently drove past the parking lot that materializes in the desert to the west of our city. Every day, as people commute from Nampa to Meridian or Boise and back again, it appears. I've watched a thousand lives ticking away there—every minute an amount of productivity lost, time wasted, life expended. The arterials and interstates of rural Western cities are what economists might call opportunity cost wastelands.
All over the world, people read the newspaper; write letters; Skype or talk with family; savor a novel or magazine; write a song or sonnet; plan weddings; write code; and design patentable bits of technology, devices and machines—while they commute to work. It's that other forgotten reason public transportation makes economic sense for a state hoping to excel economically. People gain valuable time away from family and work.
But we Westerners love our cars. SUVs are the mobile castles of the affluent. They're slick, clean, personal private space with high-definition surround sound, precise air conditioning, customizable heating and entertainment centers. For the few who can afford them, the price of gas is insignificant, even at that highest $4-per-gallon price point—a price we'll most certainly be paying once again as world politics explode and presidential candidates continue to circulate ideas for boots-on-the-ground wars in the Middle East.
Of course, most of us don't have cars we wish we could spend hours in. We suffer the heat or cold and drive something more humble. We feel pain when we have to fill a tank at $3 a gallon. The $50 tanks of gas we bought two years ago made us rethink our driving and how costly our jobs were, our shopping trips or our visits to relatives or restaurants or places around the valley that required a drive. A lack of efficient, affordable public transportation stifles an economy.
People from Los Angeles or the Bay Area might laugh when they hear how short the commute is in the Treasure Valley. What is 30 minutes? An hour when there's an accident? But usable public transit is about more than time. In areas where public transportation exists and is frequent, dense and usable, obesity rates drop as people walk a few blocks each day to buses or light rail stations. Even that small amount of exercise has impacts on health, physical and mental. People engage more with their communities. They mix across religion and economic class, opening the possibility that a city can reduce tensions and create a new forum for the exchange of ideas. This is fertile ground for innovation.
Some of Idaho's Republican leaders have been strong proponents of funding public transportation. The House of Representatives however, under the considerable influence of Majority Leader Mike Moyle, has refused to allow progress on letting urban areas vote to tax themselves to fund their own public transit systems. Perhaps this is because the half penny or penny of local sales tax amounts to thousands on the price of new farm equipment, or perhaps because off-peak empty buses have been taken a symbol of the wholesale failure of public transportation. Or maybe it is more simple—someone powerful is close with those who profit from eternally widening our freeways and interchanges, gobbling up all the state's transportation dollars for the sake of drivers and cars in the Treasure Valley. I'd think north and east Idaho lawmakers would object to this kind of greed. It puzzles me. But, so far, a usable "local option tax" for public transportation has faced a single and resolute roadblock.
What I do know is that with the rate of development in Canyon County and the rate at which our farmland and fields are melting into vast subdivisions, I wonder how valuable or desirable these distant houses will be as the traffic jams grow. I wonder if we'll regret losing our ability to feed ourselves or our increasing dependence on Chinese grown foods. I wonder if business owners in Canyon County ever wish people from Boise would visit more often rather than Boise being the hub of all things cultural.
What if we could hop a train to the farmers market in downtown Nampa? What if the shops, restaurants, churches and town centers of Meridian and Eagle were just a few stops away? What if a person could live in Caldwell and work, shop or go to school in Boise without even driving their car? What if our winter air didn't so often trigger asthma or aggravate other lung conditions?
City transportation organizations have funded studies on the precise cost of sustaining light rail and expanding buses to flexible, usable levels where we wouldn't wait hours or be forced to ride only weekdays between rush hour commutes. The system has strained to expand its service and hours for the sake of working people whose schedules are not 9 to 5. On limited funds, expansion often means cuts somewhere else.
What's it worth to you? Your business? Is it worth a visit to the Capitol when lawmakers come back to Boise this January? Is it worth a call now? Your Legislature is worth getting to know. Three of the 105 were elected to represent you. Besides, elections are coming. Where do your lawmakers stand?
Nicole LeFavour is a longtime educator and activist, and served in both the Idaho House of Representatives and Idaho State Senate.