Light Rail Illustration

Photo illustration by Randy Lavorante/IPT, compositing downtown Boise photo by Greg Kreller/IPT and metro train AP photo by J. Scott Applewhite  

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Imagine this: A man lives in Caldwell and needs a ride to the airport, but he doesn’t want to leave his car in a parking garage for a week. Instead, he catches a neighborhood bus into Caldwell’s downtown and walks a block to a train platform. Then for just $2.50, he purchases a ticket for the 30-minute ride to the airport.

This scenario could be duplicated for residents in Nampa, Meridian, Notus, Star and Boise. And it’s not far-fetched.

There are transportation groups such as the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho with well-researched plans to transform the Treasure Valley into an interconnected hub — all they need now is the funding.

IMPROVING MOBILITY

Unlike the electric trolley used around the area the 1920s, a new rail system in the Treasure Valley could look like a Siemens S70 train system like the kind already being used in neighboring Salt Lake City or Portland.

They are quiet, quick and typically inexpensive for riders. Portland’s TriMet system charges anywhere from $2.50 for an adult two-hour ticket and $100 for a one-month ticket. TRAX operated by the Utah Transit Authority charges similar fares for use of its system.

MaryAnn Waldinger, a principal planner with COMPASS, said implementation of public transit systems doesn’t negate the need to upkeep existing road systems. Instead, it offers more options for people to get around.

“It’s really about giving people choices,” Waldinger said.

Ideally in the future, people would not have to drive across the Treasure Valley to get from their home to their job. Lisa Itkonen, also a principal planner with COMPASS, said a major part of the organization’s Communities in Motion 2040 plan is to incorporate land use, environmental protection and livability into the future of the Treasure Valley.

All of this is intertwined with how people get to and from their residence and workplaces. 

Waldinger said there are roughly 30,000 jobs in downtown Boise. That number is unlikely to change, but moving forward, services and jobs can be established closer to homes. Land-use plans envisioned by COMPASS work toward accomplishing that goal, she said.

Waldinger said many people, for example, work at major job locations such as St. Luke’s downtown, Boise State University and the Ada County Courthouse. She said these job locations are not likely to diminish over time.

“We’ll still have some of those challenges when you think about the density, and that’s a vibrant downtown,” Waldinger said. “But at least if we provide other services and jobs near where new homes are going, they have opportunities for shorter trips.”

A future transit system in the Treasure Valley would likely connect the area in a loop that would run close to Interstate 84 from Caldwell and every town between to the Boise Airport. It would loop around State Highway 44 connecting Garden City, Eagle and northern communities like Star. Neighborhoods would have bus lines — if the existing Valley Regional Transit system were expanded — so people in suburbs and apartment complexes could access the rail lines to connect the Valley.

Routes similar to this have been explored by Valley Regional Transit in past studies.

KEEPING UP WITH THE TIMES

This mix of communities, workplaces and living space planned between existing farmland and homes depends on a robust transportation system to help make it a success, especially with younger generations.

“The West, especially the rural West, is certainly a very car-focused society, but studies show that new generations, especially with the millennials, are much, much more interested in transit,” said Amy Luft, COMPASS communication coordinator. “They have a significantly lower rate of car ownership. They’re also more interested in living in downtowns where they can walk instead of driving.”

Luft said developers are adjusting to market trends. While someone may work in Boise but live in Nampa where they could afford housing, the trend is to find housing closer to sites of employment.

“If you live in one area and work in another area because that’s what you thought you could afford, you may be spending more because your commuter costs are higher,” Luft said. “In some cases, even when the housing itself is a little more expensive, overall it’s still maybe more affordable because people aren’t having the long commute times, paying the gas, the insurance the wear and tear on their car.”

WHY IT MATTERS

If the Treasure Valley planned well, it could have a robust bus system planned around a rail system so that all of the infrastructure necessary to support the system is in place by the time it is built. That way no one system is lacking, and it all is up and running at the same time.

Itkonen said as these systems came into place, bike lanes and sidewalks would to fill the gaps for pedestrians and people with short trips to train stations, but also parking lots for motorists who want to break up their commute between car and train have to be built. These lots are called park and ride lots and are part of the bigger transit picture.

“One of the things this vision also calls for is some high-capacity transit,” Itkonen said. “There is a call for that kind of thing, because we’re forecasting that the Valley will have just over a million people by 2040 and just half a million jobs.”

Itkonen said the year 2040 is the wrong time to start making plans.

“It’s a long process, and to have something like that in place by 2040 when we would really truly need it with the population we’re forecasting, we would need to commit to it now,” Itkonen said.

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