It doesn’t take a traffic study to know that a drive from Caldwell to Boise in the morning can be a painfully slow chug. Driving back in the afternoon is no improvement. It’s difficult to imagine it could get any worse.
But in the event that nothing is done to change the present course of transportation infrastructure and public transit funding, it certainly will be.
A future where it takes as many as 70 minutes to drive between Caldwell and downtown Boise is real. The drive from Nampa to the Boise Airport, currently about 25 minutes, could be 40 minutes to nearly an hour.
This is the tough outlook for commuters forecast in the Communities in Motion study put together by the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.
The total amount to fund projects to address the issue between 2014 and 2040 is estimated to be $9.7 billion. But there is projected funding for only $5.4 billion.
And of the 33 projects that COMPASS has recommended for its comprehensive transportation plan, not one is geared toward comprehensive public transportation studies that would lead to a light-rail system or dedicated bus rapid transit.
“We are making choices about transportation right now that aren’t the most efficient long-view type choices,” Valley Regional Transit Executive Director Kelli Fairless said.
MORE PEOPLE, MORE CARS
In just 26 years, the area including Canyon and Ada counties is expected to see its population almost double from 581,288 to almost 1.02 million.
Nampa and Meridian would see some of the largest single increases of around 70,000 people each. Star would make a jump from just 6,472 residents to 35,644.
More people means more drivers on the roads.
The Communities in Motion 2040 study forecasts that if left unfunded, many roads in the area could see significant speed decreases from congestion.
Major roads such as Interstate 84, Eagle Road and Caldwell Boulevard could see slowdowns of anywhere between 10 and 30 mph.
State Highway 44 and Chinden Boulevard could see even more severe slowdowns of between 30 and 40 mph.
Even if all 33 of the projects suggested by COMPASS were funded, congestion is expected to increase in some areas because the population is expected to be so much higher.
The drive from Nampa to the Boise Airport currently takes only about 25 minutes, and while leaving all projects unfunded could see that drive time go up to nearly an hour, COMPASS believes the commute still may get up to 40 minutes by 2040.
“Sometimes even with those needs funded we have an increase in travel times just because of that increase in population,” said Amy Luft, communication coordinator for COMPASS.
COMPASS estimates it would take $359 million per year to meet its existing funding needs for its 33 priority projects — no new public transit included — and $159 million annually is still unfunded. This money would likely have to come from a variety of sources such as taxes and vehicle registration fees.
“The funding stream hasn’t been able to keep up,” Luft said. “The $159 million a year sounds like a lot of money, but it’s an additional $2 per household per day. It’s less than a latte.”
PLANS ARE THERE
A short-term plan by VRT for Canyon County includes a major transit center near downtown Nampa and a bus route going down Caldwell Boulevard.
Other major areas, such as colleges and medical centers, are hit but on longer intervals.
The plan also includes intercounty service from Caldwell and Nampa to downtown Boise every hour during peak times and every three hours during the middle of the day.
With the short-range plan, which is a basic bus system, it would be about 250 percent more hours of service than the system has today, Fairless said.
“That really indicates how far behind we are,” she said.
There are several studies and forecasts produced by various transportation groups and agencies that would be responsible for helping put more public transportation in place, such as Valley Regional Transit and COMPASS, but the studies all face the same challenge — there is no funding to move them forward, so they sit on a shelf until they become outdated.
Lisa Itkonen, principal planner with COMPASS, said it takes about 20 years to implement a fully functioning light rail system into a town, so planning ahead is key. Even existing bus systems must be in place to help support a more robust public transportation option since there has to be a way for riders to access rail systems.
No study, construction or operation can move forward unless it can be paid for. Luft said there are studies for more public transportation systems, but they are limited and really only a first step to get the community moving in a new direction.
“With the study is the timing,” she said. “Eventually the numbers aren’t good anymore. So any study done has to be done in an appropriate time so you don’t spend
$10 million on a study to have it sit on a shelf for so long that you have to do it all over again because it’s so outdated.”
There are several roadblocks to making progress toward a public transportation system in the Treasure Valley.
But funding of public transit doesn’t seem to be an issue that the state Legislature will take up any time soon, especially with the shortfall in highway and road funds. State Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said he doubts any public transportation funding will be talked about this year.
“At this point, because of our funding situation we have enough barely to put together the bus system we have,” said Walt Satterfield, COMPASS planner.
Luft said the Treasure Valley doesn’t even have the option of using existing income to fund studies or projects, and a change in how funding is able to be used would start at the Legislature.
But funding public transit would sidetrack funding for highway transportation, Rice said.
According to a 2010 governor-appointed task force, Idaho needs $287 million more in revenue each year to preserve and restore existing roads. If the state wanted to make enhancements for capacity and safety, it would need an additional $632 million each year.
“We have a lot of bridges that we need to get replaced,” Rice said, adding I-84 still needs expansion. There is a bottleneck every day coming into Nampa eastbound after the Garrity exit, he said.
But Fairless questions if growing the highway and road system is the best route.
“What business person ever builds things they can’t sustain and maintain?” Fairless said. “And then they don’t put any money into it because nobody wants to pay for it.”
To have a good transit system, there needs to be investments in roads and public transit, as the state can’t have one without the other, Fairless said.
Another reason public transit isn’t on the forefront of the Leglislature’s agenda is because it has not become a statewide issue, Rice said — a fact Fairless knows all too well.
“A lot of the legislators see public transportation as an urban issue,” Fairless said. “So we have a little bit of that tension, I think.”
But as Valley Regional Transit struggles to find a dedicated funding source, even existing transit systems seem doomed to remain exactly as they are.
“It’s difficult to plan an expansion when you don’t know year to year what your funding is going to be,” Luft said. “The emphasis on that dedicated funding source, something that can be planned on and anticipated is really huge.”