In the Loop

A downtown circulator (both east/west and north/south) may be in Boise's future


When Boise officials reignite the debate on whether busses or streetcars should shuttle passengers through a downtown circulator system, Mayor Dave Bieter's opinion is clear.

"The highest compliment you can pay a bus is to say that it looks like a streetcar," hizzoner is fond of saying. What's more, Bieter pushes back against the argument that bus lines stimulate a city's economic vitality.

"I've looked at bus systems all around, and I can tell you that people just don't make economic decisions based on a bus," he said.

So Bieter was particularly anxious, along with the Boise City Council, to get an update on a blue ribbon steering committee's latest analysis to introduce a fixed transit loop to the city's downtown corridor.

"The steering committee has met five times since February 2014," city engineer Jim Pardy told Bieter and the council during a Feb. 23 strategic planning session. Pardy was pulled from his usual duties of designing city sewers two years ago to be the city's liaison to a circulator analysis, overseen by the URS Corporation.

"The technical analysis is done. Everything that needs to be studied has been studied," he said. "We expect the steering committee to meet one more time and then we'll get some public input before coming to the council for its recommendations."

With that, Pardy unveiled what everyone had been waiting for.

"We've dubbed this 'The T,'" he said, an appropriate name for the possible circulator route crisscrossing downtown Boise. A giant "T" is formed by an east/west route running up and down Idaho and Main streets and a north/south route running along Ninth Street and Capitol Boulevard.

"We looked at almost every possible configuration and combination, and this rose to the top," said Pardy. "There still is a bit of modification but for all intents, this is what we used."

For years, Boiseans have debated whether a circulator, if approved, should run north/south or east/west. The latest maps clearly indicate that, if things go as discussed, a downtown transit loop could include both. The east/west loop would go from St. Luke's Hospital (east) to 15th Street (west) and the north/south loop would go from Main Street (north) to Boise State University (south). An extension would also feed to University Avenue, extending to the Boise State Student Union.

"And the theme of connectivity to the airport continually comes up," said Pardy. "A lot of people ask, 'Will this get me to the airport?'"

The map indicates the first phase of such a plan wouldn't travel any further south than Boise State, but Pardy said the design "leaves a lot of options on the table."

As for how many people might ride a downtown circulator, Pardy said analysis shows approximately 950 people would probably ride a streetcar with a $1 fare, but that number jumps to 1,400 per day if it's free. The projected cost to build a streetcar line is about $111 million with a $3.3 million operations and maintenance budget each year.

As for how to pay to pay for such a project, Pardy said initial analysis pointed to the creation of a local improvement district, dedicated funds from parking revenue, possible naming rights and advertising, and so-called TIF (tax increment financing) that allows cities to earmark property tax revenue from increases in assessed property values due to the transit line.

Bieter wants to make it clear City Hall's work hasn't even begun when it comes to selling such a proposal to the public.

"Some of you weren't here when we went down this road," said Bieter, referring to the failed 2008 effort to land federal funding from the then-new Obama administration to help spur a streetcar system with an east/west downtown route.

"We learned a lot from that," said Bieter. "The integrity of this process is so important. We've been meeting with Boise State, St. Luke's, Simplot, the Gardner Co., Idaho Power, a number of stakeholders, and they tell us they're happy with how we've gone about this. The tough part of our job is help measure expectations to get something meaningful done."

Bieter cautioned once the Boise City Council gets a more detailed financial analysis on a proposal, only then can they "do the legwork and put the pieces together on this."

With the option of a bus or a streetcar, Bieter is totally on board with bypassing a bus.

"Just look at the picture of a bus versus a streetcar," he said. "Come on."