Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What's In A Name? Transit vs. Public Transportation

Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 at 12:57 PM

A new subcommittee of Gov. Butch Otter’s Transportation Funding Task Force met for the first time last night to tackle public transportation, but it took members a sizable chunk of time to figure out just what they were talking about.

Ken Burgess, a lobbyist for Treasure Valley metro planning group COMPASS, interjected about mid-way into the meeting that committee members were missing the finer points of the terms “public transportation” and “transit,” and they ought to put the brakes on the former.

“There’s a bit of a semantic issue here,” Burgess said. “The word ‘transit’ conjures up the image of a bullet train from Nampa to Boise. Public transportation is a lot more than that.”

Subcommittee Chairman David Bennion, a retired CH2M Hill executive, jumped on the idea.

“It’s not a speeding train between Nampa and Boise,” Bennion said. “That picture has set this process back.”

Presumably, Bennion meant that rail—especially high-speed—is just too unrealistic for lawmakers and local officials to consider, even in the Treasure Valley. They’d rather envision buses, vanpools or park-and-ride programs.

“It’s been a bit of a dream in Idaho,” Burgess added. “That’s a long way off.”

With high-speed rail thoroughly chastised, committee members unofficially agreed to correct themselves for the remainder of the two-hour get together, switching from “transit” to “public transportation” or, in the case of ITD Public Transportation Administrator Randy Kyrias, “mobility networks,” to include any conceivable method of conveyance that relies on public funds.

“The perspective people in Idaho have is if it has wheels we’ll count it,” Kyrias said.

Commuteride, vanpool and car pool programs in the Wood River Valley and McCall areas earned especially high marks, but Kyrias added those systems grew organically, and the state shouldn’t be seen pushing any particular transit mode on communities or "railroading" connections between individual systems.

“There are really creative things going on in rural areas,” Kyrias said. “[But] we don’t want to force it.“ At the same time, though, there’s an effort on to “weave the entire state together,” he said.

Faced with a balancing act between respect for local control and the state’s need for more public transportation, committee member Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, spoke what was apparently the unspeakable.

“I’ll just say the words out loud: local option, or as I call it, home rule,” he said. “Whether they use it or not is their choice.”

Bennion concluded the meeting with a warning that recommendations coming out of the subcommittee shouldn’t affect the dollars going to maintain the state’s roads and bridges.

“The kneejerk reaction of people is: ‘I like my car, I like my roads to drive on and Ada County deal with your own damn problems,’” he said. “You can’t rob Peter to pay Paul.”

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