Light rail

Above: Salt Lake City’s light rail program TRAX began operating in 1999.

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Reno, Nevada, lies a little more than 400 miles southwest of Boise. With a population of about 225,200, compared to Boise’s 214,200, it’s one of our closest neighbors in terms of demographics.

Reno’s metro area is a bit smaller than Boise’s — about 425,400 people compared to 616,500, according to the 2010 census — but, like the southwestern Idaho population included in Boise’s metropolitan statistical area, those folks are spread out over a large geographic area.

With a public transportation budget roughly 2.5 times higher than Valley Regional Transit’s, and more than four times the annual ridership, the Washoe County community makes public transit one of their top priorities, and constantly strives to stay a step ahead of growth.

“We had an extensive outreach process during the development of the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, and more transit is something people strongly said they would like to see,” said Regional Transportation Commission spokesman Joe Harrington.

Overseeing transportation throughout the Reno area falls to the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County, Nevada. With an operating budget of about $30 million as of 2012, according to the most recent report from the National Transit Database, the commission operates a fleet of 70 RIDE buses.

hat includes two eco-friendly diesel-electric hybrids — along 26 routes covering 136 square miles between Reno, its neighboring city Sparks and areas throughout Washoe County.

Southwestern Idaho’s Valley Regional Transit’s budget, in comparison, was about $12.4 million in 2013.

In 2013, about 22 percent of Reno’s funding came from fare revenues. The rest came from state funds (44 percent), federal assistance (33 percent) and 4 percent from other funds.

Four fully-electric buses service downtown Reno, Harrington said, and thanks to a recent federal grant, four more will soon be added to the fleet to cover routes running between Reno and Sparks.

Residents and visitors to the Washoe County area take over 8 million rides on those vehicles every year, Harrington said. In comparison, VRT only provided just under 1.5 million rides in 2013.

When the Washoe County’s transportation commission offers free rides on special occasions — such as Election Day earlier this month — it will get even more riders than usual.

“We had 32,874 rides on the system (on Nov. 4), which is the fourth highest ridership in RTC’s history,” he said. “It was just 10 rides shy of tying with the third-highest ridership. The highest ridership we’ve ever had was approximately 34,000 rides in a single day, which was another free ridership day on Election Day in 2012.”

It’s come a long way since bus service began in September 1978 with five buses operating on four routes. The Regional Transportation Commission didn’t come along in its current form until the following July, after the Nevada Legislature consolidated three separate agencies — the Regional Street and Highway Commission, the Regional Transit Commission and the Washoe County Area Transportation Study Policy Committee.

Within Reno itself, Harrington said extra-long RAPID buses carry more passengers faster along a five-mile-long corridor running from downtown Reno to the Meadowood Mall.

They run all day every day, hitting each stop once every 30 minutes from 4 a.m. to midnight, and every hour until 4 o’clock the next morning.

The service is designed to feel like a light-rail commuter train, with non-stop service between stations and level platforms that allow passengers to board the 60-foot-long buses without stepping up.

The RAPID buses use the same streets as private vehicles, but they have a few tricks up their sleeves to keep them moving along their routes.

For example, the vehicles have an accordion-like articulated joint in the middle, which makes it easier to maneuver around traffic despite their length. And the drivers have some limited control of traffic signals as they approach, so they can increase their odds of hitting green lights.

Stops along the RAPID routes provide real-time arrival information, so if a bus is running a little late, those waiting don’t have to wonder where it is.

“We even have a service where (riders) can use their smartphone to text where they’re at, and it texts back how far away the bus is,” Harrington said.

But Reno’s commission doesn’t just manage the area’s bus fleets, he said, it’s also responsible for road and highway planning in the area. As the community grows, planners can include changes in infrastructure and vehicle fleets in the same equations.

Already, Harrington said, the commission has future growth planned out until 2035. Public transportation is something the Reno-Sparks community consistently says they’d like to see more of, he said, and the Blue Ribbon Committee — an advisory group made up of business and community leaders — is constantly looking for new ways to expand transportation options.

The commission’s biggest project currently underway — in fact, Harrington said, at a cost of $270 million, it’s the biggest in the commission’s history — is the construction of a new, five-mile-long roadway between Reno and Sparks.

Crews have just completed phase one — the first mile of the future Veterans Parkway. Once complete, the corridor will create a new route between the two cities.


Salt Lake City, Boise’s demographically similar neighbor to the south, used a local option tax to implement a light rail system. The system was criticized but quickly saw a ridership of 55,700 people in 2006 — more than double what was projected by 2020, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The light rail program, known as TRAX, began in 1999 operating along one 16-mile corridor between Salt Lake City and Sandy, Utah. Two additional routes were built in 2001 and 2003, with additional extensions completed in 2011.

The area’s local option tax, like the Utah Transit Authority’s service, is spread out over multiple counties. A 0.625 tax in Salt Lake County, and a 0.5 percent tax in Weber and Davis counties, are added to all non-food sales taxes and earmarked for transportation, according to the area’s regional transportation plan for 2007-2035.

The Treasure Valley is about 15 years behind Salt Lake’s population, said Valley Regional Transit executive director Kelli Fairless. And Salt Lake City started designing its public transportation system about 10-15 years before it put the first rail in the ground.

“Even if you’re extremely conservative, if you can take the long view about the investment that you’re making, public transportation ends up being a pretty good investment,” Fairless said.

Just as light rail was unpopular in Salt Lake, public transit in Idaho could be hindered because Idaho doesn’t have public transit experience, Fairless said. But Idaho does know roads.

“Now we’re paying the price for that because we have all these roads that take us places,” Fairless said. “We’ve designed our communities around driving, not walking, biking and public transportation. It’s made it even harder for public transportation to be efficient because of the way we’ve designed our cities.”

Salt Lake figured out how much it would cost to not build public transit as part of its overall transportation system, she said. The city built a transit system in a 30-foot right-of-way that can carry up to 250,000 people without ever expanding that footprint, she said.

In comparison, traffic on Interstate 84 near the Ten Mile exit has about a 93,000-vehicle count per day.

The light rail is only one small part of the Utah Transit Authority, which maintains a fleet of 600 buses, 400 van pools, 146 light rail vehicles, 63 commuter rail cars and 18 locomotives.

The authority serves not only Salt Lake City metropolitan area, but also six surrounding counties, which taken together are home to almost 2 million people.

These vehicles operate along about 200 routes serving a 1,600-square-mile region encompassing Salt Lake City, Park City, Provo, Ogden and Tooele.

The Utah Transportation Authority operated on a budget of $202 million in 2012, according to a National Transportation Database report. Of that amount, about 22 percent came from passenger fares, 53 percent from state funds, 23 percent from federal funds and 3 percent from other sources.

  • By Justin Dalme and John Funk


Spokane, Washington, another city with both geographic and demographic similarities to Boise, saw the birth of the Spokane Transit Authority in 1980, although public transportation in the city dates back to at least 1883, when independent businesses offered transportation service via horse-drawn carriages.

Public transit has always remained a staple of the Spokane metro area, authority spokeswoman Beth Bousley said. In the 1920s, local utility companies in partnership with transit providers established the area’s first regional transportation network: the Spokane United Railway Company.

Streetcars and trolleys moved residents and visitors around the city until the 1930s, Bousley said, when they were gradually replaced by buses and motor coaches.

Due to gasoline rationing during World War II, ridership spiked in the mid- to late-1940s.

Today, according to an annual report released by the authority, it manages a fleet of 148 buses, 118 paratransit vans offering transportation service to the disabled and 111 van pools operating along 34 routes, providing about 11 million rides each year.

It operates on a budget of about $56 million, about 18 percent of which comes from passenger fares. Sixty-five percent comes from local funds, 15 percent from federal assistance and 2 percent from other sources.

The local portion of the funding, Bousley said, comes from a sales tax in a Public Transportation Benefit Area. When the authority was established in 1981, the amount of sales tax earmarked for transportation was set at 0.3 percent. In 2004, voters approved a 0.3 percent increase, bringing the total levy up to 0.6 percent, which generated about $37 million in 2012, according to a National Transportation Database report.

  • By John Funk

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