Friday, December 31, 2010

A Streetcar to Nowhere in Boise, Idaho

The streetcar project is not a viable addition to downtown Boise. In addition it will be perpetually and heavily subsidized with tax dollars.

If you, like so many others, are against putting in a regressive transportation system at a tremendous taxpayer cost, you must take action. Please call, email or write the Boise City Council, Mayors Office and write letters to the editor at the Idaho Statesman and Boise Weekly.

Links to contacts:

email comments to (you will get a canned pro-streetcar reply)

Mayor's Hotline 384-4404

Contact the Boise City Council

Idaho Statesman Letter to editor

Boise Weekly Letter to Editor

There is also more analysis at the Boise Guardian

And another at and

I realize that this is a lot of information to wade through. Please remember I am trying to give you as much information as possible so that you can be fully informed of the path the city is going to go down, and not just get the one side they are presenting. As for myself, I am a long-time Boise resident (40+ years) and business owner (25+ years)  who is strongly opposed to what I see as a grossly inefficient use of public funds.

There are many unanswered issues regarding the streetcar. Here are just a main few points to consider:

How will the streetcar deal with the TWENTY-EIGHT traffic signals on the proposed 2.6 mile route?

The city is running a $9 million deficit. Where will the funds come from to cover the construction and, since the streetcar will be free to ride and cost over $1 million a year to operate, operating cost shortfalls?

Why have no alternatives such as electric buses been looked at? For example, electric buses have been in service in Chattanooga, TN since 1992.

The streetcar will not be able to run during events when the streets are blocked off, such as the July 4th Parade, Holiday Parade, Twilight Criterium, St. Lukes Womens Fitness, Main Street Mile, Boise Curb Cup, and numerous others.

In the cities grant application and streetcar flyer, they claim downtown Boise has 36,000 workers and 11,000 more potential riders within walking distance. Please remember the entire city only has a total population of a little over 205,000. According the Idaho Dept. of Labor, Ada County has a total workforce of just over 174,000 ( – so the streetcar proponents are claiming 1/5th of the entire county workforce is employed downtown.  They claim a projected ridership of 1200 per day; this is in stark contrast to the Little Rock, AR streetcar Mayor Bieter uses as a model. The Little Rock streetcar has been running for 5 years and generates only around 300-400 riders per day, even though it is part of a planned development and tourist attraction. The Kenosha, WI streetcar, which is also similar, only generates 300 riders per day. (

The Streetcar Task Force is made up of 35 business owners, developers and the CCDC. They have been meeting for almost two years behind closed doors even though taxpayer funds are going to be used for this project. Seven members have expressed serious concerns about the streetcar, which to my knowledge the city has yet to satisfactorily address.  These members, as reported int he Idaho Statesman, are:

  • George Iliff, Colliers International managing partner
  • Ed Dahlberg, St. Luke's CEO and president
  • Lamont Keen, Idaho Power CEO and president
  • Jim Kissler, Norco CEO
  • John Lamb, senior vice president for U.S. Bank Plaza owner Unico
  • Doug and Skip Oppenheimer from Oppenheimer Companies
  • Scott Schoenherr project manager for Boise Plaza owner Rafanelli and Nahas

Because it is on tracks, the streetcar will not be able to service events at Ann Morrison or Julia Davis Parks, BSU, the train depot, or the proposed Jacks Place.  It will only have two cars with possibly a third, making its event carrying capacity virtually useless since additional cars CANNOT BE ADDED..  Any further route development will take years and tremendous amounts of additional tax dollars to service relatively small areas; 2 to 3 miles at best.  In addition the proposed future Broadway and Capital Blvd routes are already for the most part developed.

Most destinations along the proposed route can be walked or driven to in a few minutes. Why would people wait around for a streetcar to get to their destination more slowly?

During the day, traffic downtown is already congested. A streetcar, despite the city’s claims, will only add to this because it will integrate poorly into existing auto and pedestrian traffic. The streets downtown are almost too narrow already just dealing with cars let alone a streetcar.

The streets downtown will be torn up for about two years installing tracks, which will hurt businesses along the route and stall traffic.

The two ends of the proposed route have little to no potential riders. The east end – nearly one-third of the route - has almost no future development potential.

Two of the proposed future routes - Broadway and Capital - are already mostly developed, nullifying the development claims.

The city is already running a budget deficit of $9 million and this will only add to it.

The city already has SIXTEEN defined transportation needs that are currently unmet. We do not need a streetcar put ahead of other projects that are more important.

The additional tax burden from the proposed LID on the downtown businesses will raise lease rates and this will be passed on to the consumers.

Boise Mayor Bieter and Councilwoman Clegg have both pointed out that the city currently is having trouble funding city departments and programs. Mayor Bieter told the media in September that health insurance costs were straining departmental budgets. It was reported by Clegg that arts funding was in trouble. YET THEY BOTH STILL FAVOR A STREETCAR THAT IS UNFUNDED and which will run at a deficit - only to be offset by taxing downtown businesses.

I have personally spoken to some of the downtown developers about their plans. They are not waiting around for a streetcar. They have already spent millions in existing development and have plans to develop more. The streetcar will not bring development regardless of what claims are made.  In fact, it is more likely that the streetcar will follow, not lead, development. One further point to make - the streetcar is in the CCDC's urban renewal district and THEY WILL BENEFIT THE MOST FROM THE TAXES.

Please see COMPASS Board member Sharon Ullmans blog post regarding the streetcar:

Also she has said this about the taxes:

“The vast majority of the proposed project is within the Capital City Development Corporation’s urban renewal area. Under tax increment financing, should there be new growth along these major portions of the line, the property tax revenues generated will be diverted to CCDC. The cost of services (fire, police, paramedics, roads, etc.) to serve the new growth will be borne by the rest of the county’s taxpayers.”

The Portland system comes up frequently by streetcar proponents. Please get the facts on the Portland system before you use it as a talking point by visiting the following sites:'Toole/randal5.htm

The revenue is not offsetting the cost burden and as pointed out in one of the following studies they may have to start shutting off bus services and other transit projects to keep paying for the train. Also check the cost PER RIDER (4 to 6 times as much) compared to buses.

The Portland Mall LID tax was just raised 70% to continue to feed the monster.  Look at where they started and where they are NOW.

In addition, according to their own numbers, the Portland MAX ridership is down about 5% this year to date over last year but the operating costs will only continue to rise. EVERY DOLLAR SPENT ON AN INFLEXIBLE, INEFFICIENT RAIL SYSTEM REDUCES THE DOLLARS AVAILABLE FOR OTHER TRANSIT PROJECTS, such as bus service, bike paths, walking paths, you name it.

Also, Boise isn’t Portland. The population is much lower and the density is far worse here. Portland's population density is 4200 people/square mile. Boise is 2900. A lower population density translates automatically to fewer potential riders in a square mile area - it's just math.

The Little Rock Streetcar is also used as a model. Please consider this:

     The Little Rock project is VASTLY different from what is being proposed here. The Little Rock streetcar was an additional added piece of a $300 million planned development called the Little Rock River Market District, which was started in 1996. The Little Rock streetcar is is what is referred to as a “heritage” streetcar, which has no more relevance to true public transportation than the train at Disneyland. And, the Little Rock streetcar wasn’t added to the project UNTIL 2004 – it FOLLOWED the development of the area, it didn’t LEAD it or CAUSE it.
     Recently, in order to try to make the Little Rock streetcar more successful, they are now looking for more tax money to try to expand the system, to try to get more riders, to try and make it into viable public transportation. However, it will have the same problems that all streetcars have – namely, high infrastructure costs, high operating costs, high subsidies, inefficient design, and NO FIRM PROOF OF DEVELOPMENT caused by its presence.

Now for the streetcars themselves. Streetcars are a regressive design. Other than cosmetic updates, handicap accessibility, and improved motor efficiency, they have remained basically unchanged since their inception at the turn of the century. Their design constraints make them very difficult to adapt and evolve. A PROGRESSIVE design is favored, such as buses. Buses come in all shapes and sizes, have a multitude of options, and can use any one of many propulsion methods - battery, electric, gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, or hybrid technology. Buses are adaptable to different transportation scenarios; for instance you can very easily add more buses to handle a crowded event, and add or modify routes - virtually impossible with any fixed rail streetcar. The city and CCDC want to be REGRESSIVE not PROGRESSIVE.

As of 10/6/09 Even though the city is running a deficit, the city council is set to award a $90,000 marketing contract to promote the streetcar. The contract is to be awarded to Cronin and Associates which is owned by state Representative Brian Cronin, D-Boise - a former campaign staffer for Mayor Bieter. Therefore, a firm owned by a state legislator with ties to the Mayors Office will be promoting the use of tax dollars to build the streetcar.

As pointed out by the Boise Guardian, this may be a legal landmine:

10/07/09 UPDATE - The marketing contract was temporarily shelved due to protests by streetcar opponents. Please see to see what happened.

City Council Candidate Dave Litster has also spoken out AGAINST the streetcar.  Please see his comments at (click on NEWS)

City Councilman Jim Tibbs has spoken out NUMEROUS times AGAINST the streetcar.  Please see some of his latest concerns here:

In short, the streetcar is an overly expensive solution to a transportation problem that DOESN’T EVEN EXIST. The vast majority of the people that I have spoken to regarding the Boise streetcar do not think it is a good idea. The best interests of the public should be taken into consideration when a perpetually subsidized project such as this is proposed and taxes will be raised on businesses. Just because it can be built doesn’t mean it should be built.

 I am all for a progressive, updated, flexible, innovative transportation system to serve Boise now and in the FUTURE. A streetcar does not fill that need.


According to Mayor Bieter and the Capital City Development Corporation, a streetcar would boost economic development and livability of the downtown core, plus reduce traffic and provide 'green' transportation. Their website promoting the streetcar is at

This project recently began to receive more traction because of the federal government Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or economic stimulus package as it is more commonly known. Mayor Bieter wants the state of Idaho to divert some of the stimulus funds into this project – somewhere between $25 and $40 million dollars. He is also proposing the creation of a local improvement district, or LID, which would cost all businesses along the proposed route an additional 30 cents per square foot in LID taxes for a period of 20 years.

The project is supported by Congressman Walt Minnick (who co-sponsored the federal bill to divert the funds for the project), Congressman Mike Simpson, Senator Mike Crapo, and Senator Jim Risch. It has also received de facto approval by COMPASS

The proposed Boise streetcar route would basically run from the area of St. Luke’s Hospital down Idaho Street to 16th, over to Main Street and back to the hospital - roughly 2.4 miles. The estimated initial cost is $60 million, over $30 million per mile. Just for comparison, freeway road construction costs are typically $8 to $10 million per mile. Once the system is in place, it can only run along that route since it is on tracks. Any change or expansion of the system (these have already been proposed) will require additional tax expenditures and possibly the creation of other LIDs or local option taxes.

The truth is, streetcars and light rail generally do not live up to the hype that their proponents claim. If we look at the claims, we can see where existing systems fail to perform.

CLAIM: Congestion reduction. On existing systems, statistically the congestion reduction is typically one to three percent - a completely negligible figure. For example, if you had 100 cars on the road and took away 3, you wouldn't notice the reduction. In addition, ridership claims typically do not live up to the hype of proponents. In 2008, a government audit of the TRAX system in Salt Lake City found that they had been overstating their ridership by about 20 percent for years.

CLAIM: Boosting of economic development. This has not proven to be the case on most existing systems. Economic development is not necessarily dependent on, or increased by, the existence of a streetcar or rail system. In Boise, most of the major developments put into place over the last decade, other than BoDo, have not been downtown. The major development areas have been much farther to the west (Towne Square, Fairview/Eagle, Overland/Eagle and others) because that is where the residential development has taken place and also because of land availability. The notion that somehow putting a streetcar downtown will suddenly make developers start building there is patently ridiculous and is not supported by any relevant study. Any further development along the proposed route would require the demolition of existing buildings and rebuilding – an expensive proposition, and few opportunities for such development still exist. Also, on the east end of the route, there are many historical buildings and homes, which makes development along that section prohibitive. Also, ANY FUTURE DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT WILL TAKE PLACE REGARDLESS OF WHETHER A STREETCAR IS PRESENT OR NOT.

CLAIM: Increases 'Livability'. Livability is tied back into congestion reduction and ridership. Most existing systems do not live up to their claims on either. As has already been pointed out, the congestion reduction is miniscule and existing studies show that the ridership of streetcar/light rail systems is typically less than bus systems.

CLAIM: The Boise streetcar would be a tourist attraction. While some parts of Idaho may be a tourist destination, Boise unfortunately is not, and a streetcar will not make it into one.

Additionally, an examination of the present building infrastructure along the proposed route reveals that the potential ridership density is actually quite low. There is a mix of residential, office and retail buildings with office use being the most prevalent. Most offices are typically open from 7 or 8AM and by 5 or 6PM are nearly vacated. There are a few bars, coffee shops and restaurants that are open later in the evening, but they are concentrated in a relatively small core area between 6th and 10th streets. There is only one hotel (Owyhee) located directly on the entire route.

At the west end of the route from 13th to 16th, and the east end from 5th street to 1st, the population density is extremely low with only one major office building on the route on the west end, and St. Luke’s on the east end.

The mere fact that there is not nearly enough ridership density to make this project feasible speaks volumes as to why it is not needed. After 5pm there is not enough potential passenger activity along the route to justify even running the streetcar, so it would either have to run nearly empty at a great expense or sit idle generating no money.

If we look at the existing mass transit system in Boise, Valleyride, they reported in their 1st quarter 2008 ( that their total ridership in October 2007 was 93,581 passengers for the month. If we are generous and say that they are now carrying 100,000 passengers per month, this equates to about 3300 passengers per day on the Boise bus system, or 1.5% of the total population of Boise. This would indicate that the interest in mass transit here is actually quite low since 69% of the residential units in Boise are within 1/4th mile of a Valleyride stop. It also proves that the congestion reduction argument for a streetcar in Boise is completely invalid, since a 1.5% bus ridership provides virtually no true reduction in congestion whatsoever, and a streetcar will not outperform the bus system. One could argue that the percentage should be higher since not everyone in Boise commutes or drives a car, but the 1.5% is only counting the Boise population and not commuters coming in from outside the city limits, of which there are many (approximately 300,000 additional residents in Ada and Canyon counties alone according to 2008 estimates).

10/02/09 ADDENDUM - the latest January through August 2009 Valleyride ridership numbers show that they have NOT INCREASED ridership levels since 2007. They are still at slightly less than 3300 per day average.

The newest claim by the streetcar proponents is that approximately 1200 passengers per day will ride it. This would represent over one-third of the daily ridership of the entire Boise Valleyride system, and therefore on the surface it would appear to be a fairly unrealistic projection.

As far as spending $60 million of taxpayer dollars, one would have to ask if there might be better ways that it could be spent than on a streetcar that serves little function and will serve very few. From a purely return on investment standpoint, a streetcar in downtown Boise would be a poor choice for the following reasons:

· It will be perpetually and heavily subsidized; more so than other mass transit options.
· It will have almost no impact on congestion.
· It will necessitate the creation of new, expandable taxes in the form of LIDs or local option taxes.
· It will provide relatively few jobs for the dollar spent.
· Since it is track-bound, it will be tremendously difficult and expensive to expand - hundreds of millions of dollars for the 3 future proposals alone.
· It will be a disruptive force not only while it is being constructed but during its operation as well.
· It has a tremendously long build time before any (and that is a big IF) benefit is realized.

The Boise Transportation Service Coordination Plan at defines no less than sixteen EXISTING areas for recommended improvements in valley transit that could be funded. We do not need a streetcar when we already have other unmet transportation needs. In addition, the City of Boise reported a $9 million budget shortfall for FY 2009-10. The streetcar, if built, will only add to this.

My final concern is that there appears to have been little or no consideration given to alternatives, such as CNG (compressed natural gas), hybrid buses, or electric rubber-wheeled trolleys. These alternatives are far less expensive, much faster to deploy, do not require tracks, and can be instantly adapted to different routes and locations based on rider needs. Studies also show that rider acceptance is much higher for buses than streetcars.

New Haven, CT is using 4 electric rubber-wheeled trolleys, which cost the city $1,066,900. They were manufactured by Ebus, who makes several alternative-energy buses and trolley replicas.

Battery-powered buses were also used during the Beijing Olympics.  Do the Chinese know something we don't?

The best example in the country of a PROGRESSIVE transportation system is in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  They operate nine zero-fare electric buses, which have been in operation since 1992 and have carried 11.3 million passengers and covered a distance of 1.9 million miles. They were made by Advanced Vehicle Systems.

Please take the time to contact the Boise City Council regarding the Streetcar Project.  Silence gives consent.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

City Spends $63,543 to study alternate route proposal

As reported in the Idaho Statesman, the city wasted another $63,543 to study the feasibility of putting the Boise streetcar on an alternate route.  The study basically confirmed that the bridges on 9th and on Capitol Blvd. would have to be modified to carry the extra load at a cost that may be as much as $635,000.  

The story is here:

Mayor Bieters other proposal, since the city did not get the federal grant, is to push through a local option tax to raise the sales tax in Boise to 6.5%.  This will impact consumers and businesses, and provide very little in the way of a solution to the tranportation needs of Boise.

Everyone also needs to remember that the streetcar requires overhead wires to operate.  These wires will have to be strung from poles and buildings, and will uglify any route that the streetcar runs on.  These wires are NOT pretty as anyone who has seen actual streetcar routes can attest to.

Why not a more progressive, modern approach such as electric shuttle buses?  The city has not even looked at them although they are in wide use in cities worldwide.  Instead of spending 

Please continue to protest this waste of money.  Contact the mayors office and city council today.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More Streetcar Task Force Members come out in Opposition

As reported today in the Idaho Statesman, several more Streetcar Task Force members have joined in opposition to the Boise Streetcar in a letter to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.

"The letter writers support public transportation and the mayor’s efforts to enhance the downtown area and but suggest the city “refocus the task force’s efforts to develop more appropriate projects and ideas to enhance transportation in Boise’s downtown and beyond.”

The letter is signed by Ed Dahlberg, St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center; Liz Fitzgerald, Unico Properties (US Bank building); Mike Gwartney, State of Idaho; George Iliff, Collier International; James Kissler, Norco; Doug and Skip Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer Companies; Mark Rivers, Brix & Co. (BoDo); Scott Schoenherr, Rafanelli and Nahas (Boise Plaza) and Maggie Soderberg, J.R. Simplot Co."

The entire story is here:

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

City of Boise has another round of Budget Shortfalls but still wants Streetcar

As reported in the Idaho Statesman, the City of Boise is running yet another round of budget shortfalls.

The city has stated that they have $5 million that they can put into building the Boise streetcar. Plus, the streetcars estimated operating and maintenance costs are around $1.4 million per year (it generates no income). 

Where is the city coming up with all of this money all of a sudden, when they have been running deficits ands shortfalls for quite a long time now? Not nearly enough tough questions have been asked about the streetcar project and if the grant is approved, the city will ram it through and commit itself to long-term debt and operating costs that it simply cannot afford. This will require them to keep diverting money into the streetcar from other areas, and they will have to also go back to the downtown property owners for more money. Wrong project, wrong place, wrong time. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

State Parks may have to close from Lack of Federal Dollars, but Streetcar Still On Track

As reported in todays Idaho Statesman at, several Idaho state parks are under threat of closure due to lack of funding.  Many of the dollars they receive each year are from the federal government.

It's ironic that the federal government, including all four Idaho members of Congress, are falling all over themselves trying to put in streetcars all over the country, but lack the foresight to protect existing parks that are of utmost importance.  In Idaho, the parks are not only used by residents, but thousands of out of state travelers come to them every year, spending millions of tourist dollars.  The possibly now exists that when they show up to visit, the "CLOSED DUE TO LACK OF FUNDING" signs at some of the parks will be in their faces.

Just another example of how the priorities of our elected officials are a complete disconnect from reality.  All four of the Idaho Congressional members - Walt Minnick, Jim Risch, Mike Crapo, and Mike Simpson - are pro-streetcar.  Apparently they do not care about the lack of funds for Idaho state parks. As I have stated numerous times, every tax dollar spent on a streetcar system is a tax dollar that is taken away from something else.