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Treasure Valley's transportation future ultimately in hands of voters

The Idaho Legislature and Boise City Hall point to very different paths on roads and transit service.

BOISE, Idaho — This is the final piece in Justin Corr's monthlong weekly series called "Transportation Tuesdays." Previous stories are in the "related stories" section at the end of this article and in our Growing Idaho section.

During the month of February, we've been hearing from politicians, advocates, and just regular folks calling for trains, more buses, and generally expanding the current public transportation system. That includes people like a single mom from Kuna with an unreliable car, Felicia Barlow.

"I just don't think the system is broad enough in its reach for people to actually use it,” Barlow said.

A COMPASS Study in 2021 echoes folks like Barlow. If a high-capacity transit system was built (like a train or bus rapid transit) and it met their needs, 59% of people in the Treasure Valley who were surveyed said they'd use that public transportation regularly. Another 28% said they would use it occasionally. While a project like that would cost millions of dollars, 86% of people agreed or strongly agreed that a more expensive option would be the better investment.

Idaho Rep. Joe Palmer (R-Meridian), doesn't agree.

“I think it's a waste of tax dollars," said Palmer, who's chairman of the House Transportation and Defense Committee.

Rep. Palmer points out that less than 1% of Idahoans currently use public transportation to commute. So, he doesn't want to throw good money after bad.

"We already have a system going where we have buses running all over the valley that aren't getting used. Over and over, we see empty buses," he said. "The amount that we're subsidizing those buses for the riders right now would buy them all a car."

Palmer is right about empty buses. Troy, my photographer, and I rode an entire bus route alone for about 30 minutes two weeks ago. Also, attitudes in surveys change dramatically when people are asked if they're willing to pay more in taxes to fund transportation projects.

ACHD conducted a public opinion survey last year. When asked if people in Ada County would support an increase in property taxes to fund any increased spending on road maintenance and construction, let alone public transportation, 63% opposed it. Of those who opposed, 42% strongly opposed it. Meanwhile, 50% said their property taxes are already too high, and 33% said taxes about right currently and they wouldn't want them going up.

"The number one thing we hear about all the time is property taxes. I rarely hear about how there's not enough mass transit to get across this valley,” Palmer said. “The people in Idaho are a certain type of people. And for the most part, I think they believe in being able to drive their cars where they want when they want, and they just don't support mass transit that much that I've seen. Otherwise, we'd be hearing complaints all the time. We hear the complaints about property taxes."

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean sees it differently.

"I think it's important to recognize that everybody in this community, both in the city and the region, deserve to have the ability to move around easily. And that's why we've invested as a city in transit," McLean said.

The City of Boise is, by far, the largest local funding source of public transportation in the Treasure Valley. 

McLean said Boiseans will absolutely support public transportation with their tax dollars because they understand the need.

"Boiseans have shown time and time again, that they're willing to invest, that we are willing to invest in our community when we see value," she said. "Whether that be to protect open space, clean water, or if the legislature gave us the chance for bus transit."

However, Boise is just one city in the Valley, and McLean said she understands attitudes could be different elsewhere. She also understands that just like people's commutes often pass through a few different cities or counties, so must the transportation solutions.

"I can't stress enough how important partnership and collaboration is," McLean said. "I so appreciate the partnership and collaboration that we have with the transportation department, the state transportation department, as we look at how we expand transit, and we won a grant for it along State Street. And ultimately the partnership that we've built with the mayors throughout this valley, and the county commissioners, legislators, even our federal delegation, to return Amtrak to Boise. That's a great blueprint for how we can do more to move Boise and Treasure Valley folks around more easily."

The blueprint is there, but is a major expansion of public transportation across the area going to happen? It depends on whom you ask.

Rep. Palmer said probably not. He said the answer is focusing on technology improvements to help people drive more efficiently,

"It's helping with lights. I know we don't see it fast. A lot of the times if you drive on Eagle Road, you complain about it all the time. But there's new technology moving on board," Palmer said. "Cars can be closer and closer together, and they're safer. As long as there are fewer accidents, and people are getting where they need to be, I think that's our goal that we need to keep aiming for. And I think we're getting there."

Boise's mayor sees a different transportation future where cities are built better to work with public transportation to grow that as a good option, but not the only option.

"As we grow, it's imperative that we continue to invest in all different ways of moving folks around, so that those who have to drive don't have as much traffic to navigate and those who are able to jump on a bus system can do that to get to work. And that's why across this region, we're building partnerships and political will to make it happen," McLean said.

This might sound corny, but the final answer on whether more public transit happening is up to you, the voters. You will determine whether potential transportation bonds and levies pass, and if leaders who share their vision for transportation in the Treasure and Magic valleys are elected.

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