BOISE — Idaho cities don’t have many financial resources available to pay for public transit, but Boise is plowing ahead with a variety of strategies to get people out of their cars.

Earlier this year, Boise set a tentative goal of reducing solo commuter car trips by 10% by 2029. The city is still developing its plans for how to achieve this. Proposals so far include programs to encourage walking and biking, new park-and-ride lots to help commuters leave their cars outside the downtown core, and a new network of paths along canals.

Boise Director of Long Range Planning Daren Fluke presented a slate of tools available for the city to use during the noon city council meeting on Tuesday. He said as the city moves forward, it will be important to expand the number of transportation options available to residents, making them more likely to reduce the time they drive.

“We need to work harder to provide transit that works for people’s lifestyles,” Fluke said. “When a mode is available to you, you will choose it when it fits your situation. (Different modes) work in different situations for different kinds of trips. But as long as they are available, they will get used.”

BUS

It’s no secret that bus service in the Treasure Valley is lacking. Valley Regional Transit has a budget of roughly $17 million, with about half coming from the city of Boise. Although the city is poised to kick in an additional $1.8 million to VRT in the next fiscal year to boost route service and fund capital improvements, city officials say paying to improve the system out of the general fund is not a permanent solution.

While the city is looking into other options to fund the bus system, officials are finding ways to cut down on car trips. One of the city’s key strategies is to continue pushing for mixed-use development across the city with design standards for developers. This idea would create dense, walkable and bikable developments in the city with housing, businesses, transit stops and other uses, so residents could easily get what they need without having to drive long distances. These are commonly referred to as activity centers.

A major piece of this is the region’s newly completed plan for State Street, which hopes for a bus rapid transit system on the corridor into Boise from Eagle, Star and Middleton. Bus rapid transit is a specific type of bus service where buses run frequently up and down a high-traffic area with stations on raised platforms and ticketing stations so riders get on and off quickly.

In the plan, the city hopes to see 15-minute bus service, lanes dedicated to buses and tightly packed mixed-use development around four major intersections. These are tentatively set for 30th Street, Collister Street, Glenwood Street and Horseshoe Bend Road.

An urban renewal district is proposed for this stretch of State Street, which could help fund some of the infrastructure improvements.

To encourage more residents to use VRT as service expands next spring, city staff is considering adding more signage, locating e-scooters and Boise Greenbikes near stops, and investing in more real-time tracking software so riders know when to expect the bus. City officials are considering using technology to allow buses to extend green lights through intersections, have priority traveling through intersections and better traffic signal timing to keep buses on time.

BIKING AND WALKING

Another possibility city staff is exploring is a partnership with irrigation canal companies and railroad Union Pacific to build multiuse pathways along canals and railroad tracks.

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Additionally, Fluke said widening the Greenbelt to separate cyclists and pedestrians in high traffic areas would incentivize people to use the path for travel, instead of just recreation.

City officials should try to influence residents’ behavior with incentives to commute differently, he said, such as requesting employers of a certain size to provide bike storage, showers and locker rooms for workers, as well as rewards for employers and employees who use other methods of traveling to work. Staff suggested car-share programs for employees who use alternative methods to get to work, but who need a car for personal errands, and a program that incentives junior high and high school students to walk or ride their bikes to school.

City staff mentioned the goal of creating a bigger “low stress” bike network with more lanes, protected and unprotected, to make it easier for riders to travel around Boise without a car. There is also the option of promoting bike trains, which are groups of kids riding to school accompanied by an adult, as well as cycling marketing events.

Making Boise more pedestrian-friendly, another goal, could be achieved by requiring sidewalks separate from the curb with trees to provide shade as a condition of all planning applications; encouraging the Ada County Highway District to include sidewalks when a road is widened or built; and adding better lighting and signage to make walking safer.

THE FUNDING

How to pay for these upgrades is a big question for Boise.

Mayor Dave Bieter has long been in favor of fighting for the state legislature to grant local option taxing authority to all cities, not just resort cities, so residents could vote on approving a sales tax to go toward a specific project.

City Council President and mayoral candidate Lauren McLean hopes for a different approach. While she agrees a local option tax would be important for funding transit, she told voters at a candidate forum Wednesday she would support waiting to pursue it. Instead, she wants to work with the whole valley to put together a broad plan before fighting likely difficult battle of earning the authority from the state.

“We have to have solutions around transportation,” she said at the forum. “Not by chasing a tool that we want, but by having a vision so we can talk about the value of moving our people between places.”

{span style=”background-color: #ffffff;”}Another funding option is creating a partnership with other local government entities in the valley, and pooling forgone taxes to fund projects. This is not an option for Boise because the city often takes the maximum 3% property tax revenue increase allowed each year, and therefore doesn’t rack up forgone revenue to take later. The packet handed out at Tuesday’s meeting mentions finding grants to build sidewalks, implementing user fees for using e-bikes, e-scooters or parking in downtown to help fund projects.{/span}

Fluke said city staff hopes to gain support for some of these changes from ACHD. He said the agency does not need to kick in more funds, but city government officials would prefer to see a larger percentage of its budget spent on walkability, bicycle networks and public transit infrastructure, instead of just road widening and maintenance.

“We’re not asking ACHD to spend more money within the city,” he told council. “We think they do a pretty good job of a very difficult task of allocating those funds across the county. We mainly would like to talk to them more about the priorities of how that money is spent within the city.”

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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