The best bus ever

The best bus ever
Jason Sievers' awesome Art in Transit bus

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Could Amtrak help TV transit?

Idaho Statesman columnist Tim Woodward has a fine essay today about the possibility that Amtrak might return to Boise after more than 10 years. He writes:

A generation of Idahoans is growing up not knowing what a passenger train is. They don't have a clue that they're missing out on one of the most civilized ways to travel.

Sen. Mike Crapo would like to change that. Crapo is considering co-sponsoring a bill that could bring Amtrak trains back to southern Idaho. That's good news for young people whose idea of a train is an antique locomotive in Julia Davis Park — to say nothing of former passengers who have alternately fumed and sulked since our trains were taken away...

... "They're looking at expanding or returning service in some areas, and there's a huge gap in the Mountain West," Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern said. "We want to see a train back in southern Idaho. There's been a lot of growth in Boise, Portland and really all along the line. There potentially are a lot more passengers than there were when the Pioneer was cut."

Woodward's column got me thinking: If Amtrak comes back to Boise, it would come back to Nampa, too. Depending on when the trains run, would there be a possibility that some people could use Amtrak to commute between Idaho's two largest cities?

Probably not. You can commute from Seattle to Tacoma on Amtrak, but it would cost about $22 a day with an advance purchase. (Woodward boasted of traveling 350 miles on Amtrak for $48. The farther you go on Amtrak, the cheaper the per-mile cost.) Still, considering gas, parking, and the relaxing train vibe, perhaps $22 is worth it for some well-to-do Puget Sound commuters.

Another potential dilemma: We wouldn't have the amount of service that West Coast and East Coast train riders enjoy. If it turns out that the day's lone westbound train leaves Boise at 11:30 a.m. and the only eastbound comes through Nampa at 3:15 p.m, that obviously wouldn't work too well for commuting.

OK, so maybe we can't count on a resurrected Amtrak to relieve rush-hour traffic on Interstate 84. The train would still help whet local appetites for more public transit and give us all a great long-distance transportation alternative.

I agree: Let's bring back Amtrak. You can write Sen. Crapo in support of this idea here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Notes from the transit summit

I was only able to attend the latter third of Tuesday's Idaho Transit Summit, so feel free to add info in the comments below if you caught the earlier sessions. But while I was there, I learned:

1) There is solid, bipartisan, statewide support for giving Idahoans the opportunity to vote on a local options tax for our transportation needs. Many speakers spoke in support of a compromise bill proposed for the 2008 Idaho Legislature, which would allow communities to seek approval for funding for both public transit and highway needs. "How do we get legislators to understand that people want the right to determine their own future?" Idaho Falls councilwoman Karen Cornwell asked to enthusiastic applause.

State Sen. John McGee (R-Nampa) and House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet (D-Ketchum) also expressed support for local option taxing authority, as did Coeur d'Alene city councilwoman Dixie Reid, businessman Chuck Winder, Eagle Mayor Nancy Merrill, and Nampa Mayor Tom Dale. The only naysayer on hand seemed to be Rep. Scott Bedke of Oakley, who suggested that leaders of communities outside the Treasure Valley may be OK with watching the metro area struggle because urban transit woes might mean better odds for their own economic development efforts.

Idaho is currently one of only four states that does not have a dedicated funding mechanism for transit - and Bedke is one of the House Rev & Tax Committee members who refused to let the local option question go to the full House last session. "My area of the state has benefited from the old system," Bedke said.

2) Some Idaho communities are doing impressive things with the limited funding we have. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization, the State of Idaho, and Kootenai County all teamed to create Citylink, a free bus system that began two years ago and serves almost all of Kootenai County plus parts of Benewah County. In that time, ridership has grown from 44,000 to more than 250,000. "The more services we can provide, the higher our ridership is getting," said Reid.

3) Keynote speakers LaVarr Webb of Utah and Charlie Hales of Oregon told how transit benefits their states. Describing himself as a staunch lifelong Republican and allowing parallels between the conservative Utah and Idaho legislatures, Webb added that nothing in his philosophy rules out giving voters the power to decide whether to tax themselves, as Utah voters have done for public transit.

Hales, a former Portland city councilman, stressed the need to get business leaders on board for any proposal. "Donald Trump was right: Greed is good," he noted, adding that a robust transit system has been a boon to the Portland area's economy. Webb echoed this, saying that business and chamber support can give cover to an otherwise reluctant legislature. At this, Chuck Winder made note of the Idaho National Laboratory in Eastern Idaho - which provides private bus transportation for its employees - and wondered, "I still don't understand why Micron spends millions on parking lots when it could spend that on transporting its employees. But we have to have a better system before people will use it."

Hales pointed to the example of Tucson, where voters repeatedly turned down transit funding initiatives before finally approving a compromise proposal similar to the one contemplated here. Quoting Theodore Roosevelt, Hales said, "Above all, try something." He suggested that some cities have done well by funding transit projects with means other than added tax dollars, "to give people an opportunity to experience good transit" before asking them to pay more for it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Idaho Transit Summit set Oct. 16

Thank you all for your patience with my sporadic bus blogging these days. I started a new job (as online organizer for the Study Circles Resource Center) a month ago. Beyond that, I am working nights to finish the seventh edition of my guidebook Idaho Off the Beaten Path. Together with various and sundry volunteer activities, I don't have a lot of time for extracurricular blogging. But there's a lot going on, so I will try to bring us up to speed ...

Next Tuesday morning (October 16), Boise State University and more than a dozen mayors from all over Idaho will play host to the Idaho Transit Summit. Speakers from Utah and Oregon will discuss what's happened in their states, and Idaho leaders will try to come to grips with what is and isn't possible here in the Gem State. Click here for more info. The free events run from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Jordan Ballroom at BSU's Student Union. No RSVP is required.

Transit funding is certain to top the agenda next week, and The Idaho Statesman editorialized today about the likelihood that transit backers will float legislation that would also allow local option taxation for road projects. A snip: "For transit backers, splitting local tax dollars with road projects represents a half-a-loaf compromise. But it's better than nothing, considering that Idaho is one of but four states that provide no dedicated state or local dollars for public transportation." Read the whole editorial here.

Also in today's Statesman, a report on the Boise mayoral race included this: "The candidates had different approaches to mass transit, with (Jim) Tibbs emphasizing the need for a functional bus system in Ada and Canyon counties before looking to commuter or light rail trains. But (Dave) Bieter said he's sold on the benefits of a commuter rail line along the region's existing tracks. He also emphasized the need to make the Idaho Legislature's adoption of a local option tax to pay for transit a 'political inevitability.'"

Finally (for now), Idaho Smart Growth is seeking people to help with a transit Neighborhood Outreach Day on October 20 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m . If you can help, email Rachel at idahosmartgrowth dot org or call 333-8066.