State Street construction

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

BOISE — With the Treasure Valley’s roads packed with cars, Boise is looking to public transit to help people get to where they need to go.

On Tuesday, Boise City Council voted to contribute more funds to Valley Regional Transit and change the city’s strategy for contributing to the system in the hopes of bringing public transportation to more residents. Council heard testimony from the public on the need for more frequent bus service, increased hours of operation and investment in infrastructure.

At the suggestion of City Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg, council has now expressed unanimous support for setting Boise’s contribution to VRT as a minimum 5 percent of the city’s property tax revenue instead of a slowly increasing annual amount. This would mean the city’s contribution to public transit would rise alongside the city’s growth, increasing services available to residents.

“There’s still a fair amount of budget gap between both what we’re budgeting today and what we have today and what’s needed to have that kind of system I’d like to see and what many of you would like to see,” Clegg said. “I don’t think we can make up that gap by waving a magic wand nor to I believe that 5 percent of any of our property tax is any magic number, but I wanted us to have some context of where transit sits in our priorities.”

Currently Boise is the largest contributor to Valley Regional Transit, which carried almost all of its $8.4 million budget last fiscal year. Since fiscal year 2013, the city has contributed $45.5 million to VRT and it has increased its annual contribution slightly each year to keep up with costs. In fiscal year 2019, the city gave $7.4 million to the transit system, which amounted to 4.2 percent of its property tax income. This percentage has fluctuated between 2.8 percent and 7.8 percent in the last six years.

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Transportation is a major focus of Boise’s government this year. Earlier in 2019, the city council began its “Keep Boise Moving” initiative, which includes a tentative goal of reducing solo car commuter trips 10 percent by 2029. The city and VRT’s strategy for growing the transit system includes concentrating resources on three of its highest performing routes on Vista Avenue, State Street and Fairview Avenue.

VRT estimates it would need an additional $10 million in funding to double the service in the valley from approximately 98,000 hours to 200,000 annually and $30 million to bring service to 400,000 hours annually.

During the meeting, Mayor Dave Bieter and members of the audience testified in support of more transportation, and repeatedly brought up the need for a local option tax to fund additional public transit. According to Bieter, Idaho is one of two states nationwide that does not have either state funds toward public transportation or is allowed to levy its own tax for that purpose.

“I’ve never found a vibrant (transit) system that is completely dependent on the property taxes, Bieter said. “There’s just too many competing interests.”

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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