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Making Tracks

Transit efforts run out of gas in the Legislature


Lobbyist Roy Eiguren brags of never bringing a bill that won't at least get a hearing. Last week, he managed to squeeze a hearing out of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee on local-option taxes, after the committee efficiently killed two other related bills (including one carried by the Senate's assistant majority leader).

Eiguren's bill, which would help fund public transit in the Treasure Valley, seemed doomed as of Tuesday.

Lobbyists are a pretty clever lot, and a few, like Eiguren, have more experience under the rotunda than most lawmakers. But here's a tip for Eiguren: Get Rep. Lenore Barrett's elderly Boise landlady a fresh box of Cubans and send a limo up to Donnelly some time to bring Rep. Ken Roberts' neighbors down to the State Street Wal-Mart.

The transit needs of the Treasure Valley depend on it.

House Bill 246 was a carefully tailored means of raising capital for a commuter train from Caldwell to Boise, or some other major beefing up of the public transit system in the Boise Valley. It would allow Ada and Canyon county residents to vote, at a super-majority threshold, to tax themselves a half-cent at the cash register for public transit.

"We believe that the need for public transit is quite substantial," Eiguren told the committee at the print hearing. "A number of you said, 'No, nyet, nada, no way.'"

Eiguren, who lobbies for Valley Regional Transit (VRT), has met with Treasure Valley mayors, chambers of commerce, business leaders and some legislators for nearly a year getting the language of the bill right. Building in what they call "sideboards" aimed at appeasing the anti-tax Rev and Tax panel--a sunset clause, regular May and November election dates, and a means to contest the election--they managed to get a hearing this week. But they had little hope the bill would proceed much further.

That's potentially a big problem for a guy like Rudy Kadlub, CEO of Costa Pacific Communities of Portland, Oregon. Kadlub, who coached the Broncos in the 1970s (perhaps that should be in the bill), wants to build a transit-friendly community in Boise, near the railroad tracks at Franklin and Five Mile, west of the mall. He says a streetcar or some transit line is inevitable as Boise continues to grow and is wracked with congestion and air-quality woes.

"We're banking on the fact that people realize that and are looking for a solution," Kadlub said in a phone interview. "We know the train won't be there in the next five minutes."

Kadlub said a train is not just a stopgap measure for congestion: It is a huge incentive to change the course of development, i.e. slow or stop sprawl, in the Treasure Valley.

"We believe in compact development, in efficient use of land," he said.

The idea is that once a transit line goes in, more dense development will crop up around it, as it has in Portland.

Barrett, a reflexively anti-tax crusader from Challis, has a different solution. If you don't want to deal with the traffic, don't drive. Or move to the country.

"I go slow and people honk at me," Barrett said at the print hearing. "There has got to be another way to do this." She said, by way of proof, that her landlady during the session, a widow who does not live far from downtown, does not want to pay any more taxes and that she just drives at odd times to avoid the traffic.

Roberts said lots of folks from Valley County come down to Boise to go shopping and that they do not want to pay for public transit here.

"Let the people pay for it who cause the problem," Roberts said. He suggested that a head tax on Treasure Valley residents would be a more appropriate way to fund transit.

The VRT coalition considered a bunch of options for raising dough to build the transit system, and settled on local sales tax as the only one that could raise enough money.

"It's not an ideal nexus, but there is a connection," said Mark Carnopis, community relations manager for VRT.

"It's time, I think, to recognize that this isn't an issue of the Legislature raising taxes, it's an issue of local control," said Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg, the interim director of Idaho Smart Growth.

The Legislature has studied these issues for years. Even Roberts recognizes a need for a better way to move people around.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, a Nampa Republican who commutes year-round to Boise, talks about the local half-cent sales tax vote in conservative terms: local control, government by and for the people and freedom.

"It's freedom from being stuck in your car," McKenzie said. That is a new kind of freedom for Idaho drivers, long used to the wind in their hair, pedal to the metal.

A local newspaper editor used to tell me that Idahoans will never agree to take a train or bus to work. That we need our rigs at hand so we can drive off into the rangeland at a moment's notice or get home in an emergency. But transit advocates insist that, "if you build it, they will come."

Rep. Bob Schaefer, a hardline tax cutter from Nampa, said he took the trains on a trip to Germany once and that the proposal here is quite a good deal, if they can figure out a better way to pay for it.

"Once you get used to it, if you have good transportation available it's cheaper than a car," he said.

Backers might consider calling the proposed Boise Valley light rail "the SPUR." The acronym is aggressive enough to appeal to the Treasure Valley cowboys who don't go anywhere without their minivans.

The only problem is I can't figure out what the letters stand for. If anyone has a good suggestion, please let Unda' the Rotunda know.

You can reach Nathaniel Hoffman at 208-331-8371.