Cooper Martin

National League of Cities Sustainability Director Cooper Martin addresses a crowd at the Ada County Highway District Commuterride May in Motion award ceremony Wednesday, June 26. The awards ceremony recognizes businesses for efforts to promote alternative forms of transportation.

BOISE — Smart transportation begets smart and stable development. That’s what the National League of Cities’ Cooper Martin wants the people of Boise to know.

“Government agencies provide the system, but almost no systems pay for itself,” Martin said.

When cities widen roads to encourage more vehicle traffic, that requires more parking structures and leaves less land for dense development. That means lost property tax revenue for whatever agency is collecting it.

Martin addressed a crowd in a ball room at JUMP in downtown Boise for the 15th May in Motion Awards. May in Motion an awards program hosted by the Ada County Highway District’s Commuterride program that encourages local businesses to incentivize employees to find alternate forms of transportation.

Every year 100 businesses are honored, but more participate, said Maureen Grescham, the Commuterride Manager.

According to estimates by Commuterride, 968 people utilized the van pool program. Additionally, there were 9,400 fewer tons of carbon pollutants emitted due to participation, and $1.8 million total saved on gas throughout 2018.

“When you’re facing increasing congestion (and) increasing parking issues downtown, every trip we get off the road helps the community,” Grescham said.

Martin said in many American cities, parking structures and roads take up up to 40% of land. Not only do those things encourage vehicle travel, but also amount to lost revenue.

“Right away, you’re not collecting property taxes from that,” he said.

In Martin’s opinion, the Treasure Valley ought to use its resources to its advantage.

He noted there are 700,000 people who live in the 950 square mile area of the Treasure Valley. In Washington, D.C., where Martin lives, the same amount of people live in 68 square miles.

“If you spread everything out, if everyone has a car and you can access every building with a car, you have destroyed that city,” Martin said. “The basic idea here is value density.”

He acknowledged that Boise and the Treasure Valley are not New York City or Washington, D.C. However, if there’s no value such as businesses and other amenities along the roads connecting sprawling development, they’re unlikely to be maintained.

“Single family homes are still going to exist, big box stores are still going to exist,” Martin said. Those things can still exist, but if they do within denser spaces, the region will gain more economically, he said.

“As you grow, as you expand the population, where are those new residents going to live in this region?” Martin said. “You could be using the infrastructure you already have so much more intensively.”

While other cities around the county maintain their own road systems, ACHD is the independent taxing authority for roads throughout the county. Martin believes this could work the the region’s advantage.

“Very few cities can independently make transportation decisions,” he said. “It almost always comes down to agreement between the city, the county, the state (and) the federal government.”

Removing some of those roadblocks could help the county grow more cohesively.

“So I don’t think that’s too challenging,” he said. “I actually think that the taxing authority could be an advantage because there’s a more explicit link between the land that’s being used and the taxes the transportation authority is able to collect.”

ACHD Commissioner Kent Goldthorpe said he enjoyed Martin’s comments, but whether Idaho can implement some of these ideas is uncertain.

“His ideas are correct and density will happen,” he said. However, the citizens of Idaho have limited options to influence decisions without the legislature changing some of its laws.

“The legislature absolutely has no faith in the voting public in this state,” Goldthorpe said. He said ACHD is an example of one of the few times the legislature has given the public an opportunity to craft their own future.

While he believes density and infill projects help solve problems, it often becomes contentious when that means redeveloping an area that has some historic significance or is otherwise important to a community.

“This happens all of the time,” Goldthorpe said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Goldthorpe noted that he believes all the ACHD commissioners appreciated Martin’s commentary on how to grow efficiently. He especially appreciated his comments about economic density along major corridors.

“The more infill projects you have and the fewer vacant properties along a transit corridor, the more likely you are to see a transit system succeed rather than fail,” he said.

ACHD Commissioner Jim Hansen also enjoyed Martin’s comments, saying they were “right on target.”

“We can’t afford the kind of infrastructure we’re building for sprawl,” he said.

Hansen believes the separation of land use and transportation planning is actually a problem for the region because sometimes ACHD will differ in opinion on planning with cities.

“I think the planning and the designing of infrastructure has to be driven by the governments,” he said.

Hansen also believes we’re under utilizing our current resources, which Martin said in his speech.

“We just keep building sprawl and saying, ‘Oh, well we have to build the roads out there,’” he said.

Xavier Ward covers Ada County for The Idaho Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @XavierAWard.

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