The Wheel Deal: Is Boise's Future Rail or Rubber? 

While Boise builds new terminal, new buses will soon roll on major routes

Kelli Fairless, executive director of Valley Regional Transit: "The problem, of course, is that we're competing with police, fire and libraries when we're looking for funding from local governments."

Kelsey Hawes

Kelli Fairless, executive director of Valley Regional Transit: "The problem, of course, is that we're competing with police, fire and libraries when we're looking for funding from local governments."

The look on his face was lost; friendly but lost. Naquibullah Rafiqee, who arrived in Boise two weeks ago from Afghanistan, walked up to a bus stop near Idaho Street and Capitol Boulevard and took a hard look at the signs dedicated to various bus routes.

"Excuse me," Rafiqee asked. "Vista?"

Yes, we assured him; he was in the right place to catch ValleyRide's No. 3 bus, which circulates from Idaho Street south to Ninth Street, up the hill to Vista Avenue, south along Vista to the Boise Airport, then back down Vista and Capitol to Idaho Street.

Rafiqee, dressed in a knee-length powder blue tunic and matching slacks, told Boise Weekly that he had worked with the U.S. Army in his war-torn country and was recently resettled in Boise by the U.S. State Department. He was anxious to get to his English as a Second Language class, which is required for his resettlement, but his English wasn't half bad.

"My bus pass," he said, pointing to one of his first American possessions.

Rafiqee was one of approximately 19 people who ride the No. 3 Vista route every hour, according to Valley Regional Transit.

On a recent weekday afternoon, BW noted a variety of passengers climbing aboard the No. 3: several parents with children in tow, five refugees joining Rafiqee on the way to ESL class, half a dozen senior citizens and a businesswoman who loaded her bicycle on the bus's bike rack before hopping on board. The return trip saw five travelers embark at the Boise Airport and depart in downtown Boise. Last year, more than 93,000 people rode the No. 3 bus, an increase of 16 percent over the prior year.

"What is that giant crane for?" Rafiqee asked, pointing to the skyscraping crane looming over the future site of the City Center Plaza. When we explained the plaza would include new office buildings and a convention facility, Rafiqee listened politely. But when he heard us say that the development would also include the Main Street Station, a subterranean hub for Boise's downtown bus service, Rafiqee beamed.

"That's where I'll be," he said.

With all of the enthusiasm about the changing face of downtown Boise—the City Center Plaza, JUMP, the Eighth and Main Tower, the rebirth of Central Addition—it's easy to forget a bus station is the centerpiece of much of that development.

"It will be a different dynamic," said Kelli Fairless, executive director of Valley Regional Transit. "Our future will increasingly depend on connections to downtown."

The Past is Present

The city of Boise had just been designated as the capital of the new state of Idaho in 1890 when a streetcar was introduced. Buses followed in the 1920s and were financially successful, in large part, because the systems were privately owned. However, as the U.S. government continued to subsidize the manufacture and sale of private automobiles, public transportation systems were kicked to the curb, becoming urban ghosts.

"It was happening all over the country. Profitable transit systems couldn't compete with the auto-based subsidies. It decimated public transportation," said Fairless. "They were literally leaving buses in the street."

Things never got that bad in Boise, but the bus system was hobbled, particularly in the 1960s, Fairless said. The city of Boise officially took over the old system in 1973, dubbing it Boise Urban Stages, or BUS, and Valley Regional Transit was formed as a public agency to operate mass transit in Ada and Canyon counties in 1999. Today, VRT's operational funding is unique among U.S. transit systems.

"Most cities and states have dedicated funding sources," said Fairless. "We're reliant on voluntary contributions from local governments."

Paying the Fare Share

"Voluntary" is the key word. If the city doesn't pay, VRT is hard pressed to provide service. More importantly, when a city does pay, Fairless spends much of her time in front of city councils detailing ridership, costs and plans for the future.

"The problem, of course, is that we're competing with police, fire and libraries when we're looking for funding from local governments," said Fairless, who quickly added that she doesn't like to play hardball with cities who don't pay up.

"We're not about shoving public transportation down people's throats," she said. "There's a public transportation option that fits whatever they want their community to look like. Kuna or Star may want to remain rural communities, so their public transportation would look very different than, say, Nampa or Caldwell."

When BW asked Fairless if every local municipality is paying its fair share, she said, "I can assure anyone who's curious that any city pays their share of what they end up getting."

There is one exception: Garden City, which pays little for the service it receives. The reason is geographical.

"To get from one side of Boise to another, the buses have to roll through Garden City," said Fairless. "The city of Boise funds those routes and chooses to open those bus doors to Garden City residents. Garden City is really appreciative of that."

More Buses Will Soon Roll on Fairview, State

An analysis of VRT ridership reveals approximately 1.2 million people were aboard one of VRT's nearly 30 routes in 2014. Two of the busiest routes, the No. 9 State Street and the No. 7 Fairview, will soon see greater frequency.

"Fairview has always had a challenge with staying on time. So, beginning in August, we're going from every 40 minutes to every 30 minutes [5:35 a.m.-7:45 p.m., Monday-Friday]," said Fairless. "Also, every half hour we'll go out Fairview to the Towne Square Mall and a half hour later, we'll send another bus out Fairview and then north to Ustick Road. That's a really growing neighborhood, especially with the branch library there."

There were approximately 131,000 boardings on Fairview's No. 7 bus. State Street's No. 9 bus, which runs every 30 minutes on weekdays, saw even more with boardings in excess of 200,000 in 2014.

"One more change is coming in August: We're extending our daily schedules on Fairview and State to 10 p.m.," said Fairless. "Yes, this all costs money, but we've got a number of things that we would like to do."

Annunciators and Medicaid

Another significant change is coming to every bus on every route in the VRT system: A new voice. Currently, many VRT drivers shout out the names of streets or landmarks for particular bus stops, but they're inconsistent and sometimes difficult to hear. Something called an "annunciator" is about to change that.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires public transit providers to announce transfer points, major intersections and destination points at intervals along a bus route so that individuals with visual impairments or other disabilities can be oriented to their location. With the new annunciators, an automated voice will announce each stop on speakers throughout the bus.

The technology isn't cheap. It will cost VRT approximately $400,000 to retrofit its current fleet of about 48 buses with annunciators, and the system is scheduled to go live in summer 2016.

A separate service offered by VRT, called ACCESS Paratransit, is also required by ADA and designed as a safety net for people with disabilities. ACCESS Paratransit is a door-to-door service for eligible riders who find it difficult to take a traditional bus to a bus stop that may be too far from a physician's appointment, for example.

"We serve hundreds of people through that program," said Fairless. "We're proud to offer that service."

However, a little known loophole in Idaho Medicaid funding is bleeding the program and, as a result, VRT. In a recent change to Medicaid-funded services, the Idaho Legislature ordered its administrator to work through a broker to assign any transportation for Medicaid-eligible patients to the least expensive provider.

"So they naturally come to us," said Fairless. "We run ACCESS Paratransit because it's federally required. Any community that takes any federal dollars has to provide paratransit. And the state's Medicaid broker is paying us our traditional $2 fare for their Medicaid patients for a trip that costs $30 on average."

Fairless said there has been a continuous rise in riders using ACCESS Paratransit and that means VRT is hemorrhaging money on a program that it is required to provide.

"You know what's happening on this? Local governments end up subsidizing this," said Fairless. "Look at the demographics of our population. That number is only going to go up."

Rail or Rubber?

Meanwhile, at Boise City Hall, planners are poring over analysis for a so-called "circulator" system that could be added to Boise's public transportation system. Whether it's a streetcar, light rail or rubber-wheeled system remains to be seen.

"Honestly, we've looked at 45-plus possible routes. Now, we're at a point of putting a cost to them. Our next steps are to spend some time with our stakeholders, the mayor and council and, of course, the public," said Vince Trimboli, Community Relations supervisor for the Boise Public Works Department. "I would think that in the fall or early winter, we'll be out with some options. It's going a bit slower than our original timeline, but it's a big decision. We would rather take our time and have the best information possible."

One of the most important decisions will be whether the primary route will run east/west or north/south.

"Some people have indicated that a locally preferred alternative would include everything and that would be pretty expensive," said Trimboli. "But we're probably going to be talking about something we call an MOS—that's a minimal optimum segment. That would be something that could be added on to. And then there are the options of whether it's a rail-based system or a bus system, but there also has to be an option that is no-build. We will always need to ask if the preferred option is not to build anything."

Driving much of that conversation will be the Main Street Station, currently under construction at Main and Capitol.

"Having a connection is key," said Trimboli. "Look at the Boise Green Bike system, look at all of the conversation on bike lanes and, of course, Main Street Station."

He added that a circulator would certainly sustain a robust VRT bus system.

"It's an exciting time for transportation," he said.

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