The Streetcar idea for downtown Boise won’t go away. There is a great desire by some, Mayor Bieter chief among them, to see Boise retrofitted with a clean, classy, historical component that shuttles thousands around downtown and economically stimulates the area. As many know, Boise’s Downtown once had a Streetcar line in its repertoire of amenities. The Streetcar is therefore an organic piece of that history, and should really be approached in that way. If we want the Streetcar, we can’t sell it as if it is going to be the transportation asset we need (it isn’t), but we can offer it as the historical asset we want and couple it with a real, sincere approach to increasing connectivity and making an economic impact – expand VRT.
Let’s not take this too far off track (pun intended), but let’s talk about need versus want. We need good, sustainable economic boosters, and we’ll arguably always need that. We need a more connected high-capacity transportation system to reach out to undeserved or unserviced communities. If someone has to drive 15 miles from Meridian to Downtown Boise, park somewhere, and then rely on a streetcar to move them a handful of blocks to spend money on local fare, then I think, perhaps, we’re supplementing our actual need with a desire to be “nifty.” We’ve then incidentally contributed to a larger problem.
In and of itself, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of Boise having a streetcar system. In fact, that could be a pretty fantastic draw and probably would have some economic stimulus value. After all, this town can reach back into its not too distant past and lay claim to rail service in all manner of ways. Many old Boise maps still have the original in-town rail lines clearly delineated. So there is something to be said about a desire to reclaim a piece of our history that only enhances our city’s culture. But it isn’t cheap, and this historic reclamation doesn’t answer a real transit problem. We should acknowledge upfront that it isn’t really about moving people around from 13th Street to 8th Street. The metropolitan area transit problem is more about moving people from Eagle Road to 8th and Main St.
So let’s be clear what we are talking about: This Streetcar project is expected to cost $60 Million. We can’t do it alone, so we’d have to get $20-40 Million from somewhere (like the federal government), and we will have to tax local downtown businesses and residences via a Local Improvement District to shorten the gap even still. These seem excessive when we’re talking about a project to shuttle people around 14 blocks of an already connected, fairly-walkable downtown area. Even then, the sustainability of the project and associated costs are suspect.
Valley Regional Transit (VRT) has a current operating budget that’s just over $14 Million. The current map of VRT service leaves a huge white swath through the map, which could be filled with good coordination between VRT, Meridian and Boise. If we’re looking for ways to spend money that actually address a need versus a desire, then let’s focus on a currently existing rapid transit system that just is already in place and in need of reinforcement. If we want to reclaim some historical aspect of the Downtown Boise Area and let people enjoy it as an experience that Boise loves and remembers, then that’s a horse of a different color – sounds great. Just don’t couch it as fulfilling any actual transit need.
See also Boise Weekly articles below from our own Nathaniel Hoffman and Andrew Crisp. This conversations has been going for quite some time.