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Road to Nowhere: The State of Public Transportation

Idaho lacks funding and support for public transportation


Benny Ontiveros steps off the bus and grabs his bike off the rack. He finds a shady bench and sits down to wait for his next bus to take him back home. For Ontiveros, waiting is nothing new.

Each day he starts his morning by riding two miles down to 10th Avenue in Caldwell to catch the 6:45 a.m. express bus to downtown Boise. From downtown, he takes another bus to his job up on Federal Way. Overall, Ontiveros estimates that it takes him about an hour and a half each morning to get to work around 8:15 a.m.

But it's in the afternoon, going back home, that Ontiveros spends the most time waiting.

"Right now, when I get to CWI [College of Western Idaho] in Nampa, I've got another 40-minute wait before I can catch another bus that will actually get me going home."

This is the fastest way home for Ontiveros, who used to take a different route. After getting off work at 2 p.m., he wouldn't get home until 6 p.m. But, for Ontiveros and other public transit commuters in the Treasure Valley, there isn't much they can do about the long waits.

"You got to do what you got to do to get back and forth, so it's all on you," he said. "I myself lost my driver's license, so I'm dependent on public transportation. It's pretty reliable. It'd be nice if it was more frequent, but it is what it is."

According to a study by the Brookings Institution in 2011, the Boise-Nampa metropolitan area ranks No. 22 out of the top 100 metropolitan areas in the percentage of jobs that are within 45 minutes of public transportation. But, when it comes to the frequency of public transportation, Boise ranks No. 90. While there is opportunity for public transportation to thrive, the frequency of service may be detracting from that success.

Valley Regional Transit

For Valley Regional Transit, the company responsible for bus routes throughout the Treasure Valley, hearing about more service is a daily occurrence.

"Our customer service probably gets five to 10 requests a day for additional service," said Mary Barker, service development manager for VRT. "We budget so tightly that every minute that we can put out on the road for buses, we've put out on the road. We're pretty much maxed out with what we're able to do with the funding that we have."

Currently, VRT receives money from both local and federal governments, but none from the state. According to Rick Thompson, VRT finance director, the amount of local funding directly affects the amount of money they receive from the federal government. Last year, VRT received $14.6 million from the federal government; but to get to that number, it's a complex web of figures. For example, the preventative maintenance budget for Boise is a 80-20 match, with the federal government paying 80 percent and the city chipping in the other 20 percent. For operating costs, Boise is too big of a city to receive federal funding, thus being funded 100 percent by the city. Nampa, on the other hand, is a 50-50 match for operating costs. With the addition of more local funding, VRT would be able to receive more money from the federal government, allowing for potential growth.

For now, each year is a financial struggle. With public transportation competing with everything else, like schools, parks, police and fire departments, VRT never knows for certain how much money it will receive from year to year. Currently, VRT receives around $6 million every year from local governments, a figure that Thompson says hasn't changed very much in five years. Paired with the money from the federal government, VRT had total revenues of almost $21.7 million in 2012.

In 2005, VRT put together a Regional Operation and Capital Improvement Plan, a dream plan of how it would like to see public transportation grow in the Treasure Valley. The report shows where VRT would like to be, ideally, six years after implementation. There are figures showing expanded and more frequent bus service and ideas for a commuter rail and downtown circulator. The major hurdle to this six-year plan was--and still is--funding. According to the report, "the Six-Year-Plan is tied to the approval of a regional dedicated source fund."

The plan would require a $44.6 million budget for operations and was assumed to begin in 2007. Six years later, the valley has seen little improvement in public transportation.

"We rely on the generosity, in big part, of a lot of the areas that receive service from us. But we are going to move on. You have to have a vision, so if you ever do have that funding in place, we'll be ready to move it in," said Mark Carnopis, community relations and marketing manager for VRT. The problem: There is still no dedicated funding source, which has left both VRT and the public wanting more.

Lupita Connor, a graduate student at Boise State University, rides the bus from Caldwell and Nampa. On the route she takes, the bus only comes once every hour. That long interval between buses has put Connor in a bind when she has arrived late to the stop.

"One day I was desperate and I had to stalk people and beg them for a ride because I had to catch my son from school," Connor said. Another time, she had to chase down the bus on her bike and beg for a ride.

Connor, who also works at Boise State, wouldn't mind seeing more buses every hour, making her daily trip more convenient.

There were attempts in 2007 and 2008 to pass a local-option tax through the Idaho Legislature--a measure that could be used to dedicate funding for public transportation. According to the Associated Press, in 2008 there was opposition from some lawmakers who thought that a local-option tax was just a way for local governments to increase taxes. There was also a plan to enact a constitutional amendment that required 66 percent of voters to pass a sales tax increase. Other legislators viewed local-option taxes as a way for Idahoans to vote yes or no on local needs. But, as in 2007, the attempt to pass a local-option sales tax in 2008 died.

"The last time we did that, the hearing rooms were standing-room-only, in terms of people supporting getting dedicated funding for us [VRT]," Barker said. "They actually had to extend the number of hearings they had. But the bill, I believe, never made it out of committee."

There have been several ways discussed for public transportation to receive dedicated funding, including the gas tax. Currently, the gas tax is dedicated only for roads, so it would require a rewriting of the Idaho Constitution to allow the money to go to public transportation as well.

There have been analyses done to see how else the state could generate revenue for public transportation.

"The last time that analysis was done, the local-option came out as the most feasible," Barker said.

What is a local-option tax? A local-option tax gives cities and counties the ability to create a tax, but only with public approval at the ballot. This can be extremely helpful when trying to fund a regional project such as public transportation. "Many, if not most, of the states in the region have some sort of local-option tax authority," said Stephanie Witt, director of the applied research center at Boise State. "So, our cities and counties are kind of at a disadvantage."