State Street construction

A Boise city bus travels through a construction zone along State Street, Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

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BOISE — As roads get more crowded, Boise and Valley Regional Transit are mulling ways to get people out of their cars and onto the bus.

On Tuesday, Boise City Council met with VRT officials to discuss their fiscal year 2020 budget request and how to put extra city funds to work in ways that will increase ridership the most. Officials pitched a variety of possible improvements to raise ridership, including adding all day 15-minute service on State Street, boosting Saturday frequency and hours of operation on the busiest routes, or extending certain routes west to the cities of Eagle and Meridian.

Because Idaho does not have a dedicated funding source for transportation or local option taxing authority for cities to raise their own revenue toward service, the city has long struggled with how to use its limited resources to provide residents with reliable bus service. Last month, city council voted to adopt a new policy of dedicating 5 percent of its property tax revenue to VRT as well as an additional $1 million in revenue over the next two years to grow ridership.

VRT will be conducting outreach over the summer with the public before holding a final public hearing and making a decision for how to make changes to the routes, but city council was able to weigh in on the options now. The city funds nearly half of the system’s roughly $18 million budget and has the bulk of the valley’s riders, giving council a lot of say over how the system is shaped.

Councilman Scot Ludwig said he supports the bus system, but is frustrated by the stagnant ridership that has hovered not far above a million annual boardings for years. He pointed to recent findings that roughly a third of bus trips in the system are delayed, which he said could be dissuading people from using the service if they have any other option.

“That high level of delinquent arrival times can impact people’s employment opportunities,” Ludwig said. “A lot of people do sit in traffic in their cars too, but the expectation is for that person getting on the bus is it is on time and they can get to work.”

He suggested the city hire an outside consultant to study efficiencies in the system and determine if there are ways it can operate more efficiently with the taxpayer dollars already used. No other council members came out in strong support for a study.

When discussing council’s ideas on how to expand service, City Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg said she would prefer only to invest in routes to serve other cities if those other cities would agree to invest at the same level. Instead, she preferred investments in improving service on existing routes in Boise.

“Expanding routes to Eagle and Meridian will depend what those other communities are bringing to bear,” she said. “We should figure out a way to have those communities pick up their own share instead of relying on the city of Boise to get it started and everybody else’s good will.”

Although the details of how much money VRT will request from Boise are still being worked out, it will possibly ask for roughly $1.8 million more than last year from the city.

In fiscal year 2019, Boise gave VRT $7.4 million to fund operations in the city, and the request could possibly hit $9.2 million for the upcoming fiscal year. The bulk of the increased request is due to a shortfall between federal funds available and the amount necessary to address long-term maintenance needs in the system, requiring up to $1.4 million. However, the system will be applying for federal funds in order to bridge the gap, so it’s unclear how much the city will have to kick in to meet these needs.

Compared to similar cities, Boise’s per capita contribution to public transportation lags. In 2017, Boise contributed $28 per capita to public transit, while Reno, Nevada, contributed $96 and Spokane, Washington, put in $145.

Margaret Carmel covers the city of Boise. Follow her on Twitter @mlcarmel or reach her by phone at 757-705-8066.

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