‘What will our traffic look like?’ Why Boise bus service hasn’t kept pace with growth

The largest city in Idaho is projected to grow by close to 20% by 2050, illustrating the rapid growth of a capital city in one of the smallest U.S. states. Already, the Treasure Valley — Boise’s greater area — houses half of the state’s population. And more than three-quarters of residents say the region could use more public transit options, according to surveys.

But unlike other similar regions, the Treasure Valley has zero state funding for public transit, a reality that has forced the local public transit agency to contemplate cutting bus service.

At a presentation before the City Council in April, Valley Regional Transit CEO Elaine Clegg laid out two scenarios for transit in the coming year, both of which would require reductions in service in some areas because of rising costs.

Clegg maintains that more reliable and frequent transit is only possible if VRT gets dedicated funding from the state or is allowed to raise its own taxes — which is currently prohibited.

How Treasure Valley bus service compares

Salt Lake City, which has a metro area population of more than 1.2 million people, began building a light rail system in the 1990s that now has three rail lines running seven days a week.

Other cities similar in size to Boise — like Spokane, Washington; Reno, Nevada; Tucson, Arizona; and Madison, Wisconsin — all have many millions more dollars to fund operating expenses than VRT does, according to analyses put together by the agency.

VRT has $46.53 in transit funds available per capita, according to 2020 data. Salt Lake City’s transit system has $193.37 and Madison’s has $215.49, according to data from VRT. The transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area has $989.01 in per-capita funds.

In Salt Lake City, most of the region’s public transit agency revenue comes from a local sales tax. In 2023, the tax is projected to bring in close to $500 million to help operate the buses and light rail.

But in Idaho, cities are not allowed to impose their own sales tax, unless they are classified as tourist towns. Boise is not. While local governments receive portions of state sales taxes, liquor taxes and often gas taxes — which generally increase with population growth — VRT does not, Clegg said.

And VRT as it’s currently set up does not have the authority to raise taxes itself, leaving it reliant on voluntary distributions from cities that are negotiated annually.

Among 12 peer transit agencies, only two other than VRT receive no state funding, according to a March 2022 report from ECONorthwest, a planning consultant. One of those two agencies, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had a budget more than twice that of VRT.

That makes operating public transit a challenge and consigns the Boise area to less frequent travel times and limited weekend service. Many of the routes that run through Boise stop operating before 7 p.m. Only a few have Saturday service, and no bus routes run on Sundays.

“The biggest challenge is that the budgeting process is very uncertain,” Clegg told the Idaho Statesman. “We know what we’d like to do,” Clegg said, though sometimes cities won’t support it. But it’s “not because they don’t think transit is a good idea,” she added. “Often it’s because they have their own budget challenges.”

Clegg, who left the Boise City Council earlier this year to become executive director of VRT, said it has been harder than she anticipated to project the service VRT can offer and the cost of that service. She said VRT has focused on increasing its advertising revenue as well as trying to partner with private companies, but the agency still has limited ability to expand its offerings.

“We have all of this new development and new demand from residential areas, and our cities are growing, but there’s not a mechanism for VRT to capture any of that growth,” VRT spokesperson Jason Rose told the Statesman.

Of the two scenarios Clegg laid out for the council, one proposal involved cutting routes with low ridership and making bus service on Fairview Avenue more frequent. Another proposal, which includes an extra half-percent of funding from Boise, would also cut the lesser-used routes but increase frequencies on Fairview even further, as well as along routes like Orchard Street, Emerald Street, Broadway Avenue and the Glenwood Street/Cole Road route. Both options include cutting some inter-county lines.

Boise’s budget director Eric Bilimoria at a meeting last month said the city is planning to budget 5% of its property tax revenues and $1.5 million in additional funds for VRT. Officials have said it isn’t yet clear how the extra funding will affect plans for service cuts.

Clegg is scheduled to return to the City Council this month to discuss the changes, and VRT will present a final network proposal later this summer. But transit advocates are hoping for bigger change.

Transit advocates push for VRT to collect sales tax

One proposed solution for VRT could be to allow the agency to bring in revenue from local sales tax. A new coalition of developers and other groups around the state are pushing to change state laws to allow for the possibility.

Called Lift Local, the coalition was started earlier this year by Casey Lynch, who runs the Boise-area developer Roundhouse.

Lift Local project manager Kate Simonds told the Statesman that local option taxes would allow cities or counties to invest in long-term projects that require substantial funding. Those projects could include public transit or other services.

Current law allows only small resort cities to collect local option taxes.

“Our goal ultimately is to give more control to localities across the state to address the growth that is happening rapidly everywhere from Boise to Council to Kimberly right now,” Simonds said. “These communities don’t have the tools that they need to address … their own infrastructure and public service needs.”

The issue not only affects public transit. Simonds said Hailey and Sandpoint are hovering just below the 10,000 population maximum to administer local option taxes and could lose large portions of their budgets after the next census.

Lift Local has 246 members as part of its coalition, which Simonds said includes some mayors, city councils and chambers of commerce from around the state. Boise is part of the coalition, Mayor Lauren McLean’s Transportation Advisor Bre Brush told the Statesman.

Valley Regional Transit continues long-term plans

In 2018, VRT published a plan to quadruple bus service in its coverage area and add more frequent transit that operates on weekends and late at night, which would bring the transit system closer to what comparable regions have. VRT in the plan said better bus service would reduce traffic congestion and save residents money. After housing, transportation is the highest expenditure category for American households, according to federal labor statistics.

The plan forecast two aspirational routes for expansion: an “intermediate” scenario and a more aggressive “growth” scenario. The intermediate plan would require doubling VRT’s annual operating expenses budget, while the growth option would involve quadrupling it. Both plans also included $23 million in additional funds to address a backlog of expenses, like deferred bus repairs and replacements.

But this year, VRT will likely have to cut some service, which Brush said is not a decision anyone wants to make.

Lines along Hill Road, Warm Spring Avenue and one that goes to Harris Ranch would be cut or curtailed. Boise’s most-used routes include lines on Emerald Street, Fairview Avenue, State Street and Cole Road.

“If there are routes that are not as efficient as others, do we have an opportunity now to reconsider those and to restructure them to make the others more efficient?” she said. “You can see our most successful, high-ridership routes are the ones with higher frequencies. … But we have limited means, so it’s not like we can make every single route (run every) 15 minutes.”

While federal grants can be used for some public transit — VRT secured a federal grant for bus infrastructure improvements along State Street, as well as a grant to help transition to a fully electric fleet — those funds can’t account for the funding needed to keep basic operations running, Clegg said.

Brush said the city has benefited from federal COVID-19 relief dollars in recent years, but that funding has dried up.

“We’re at a point where those dollars are gone, but our expenses have continued to increase because of gas prices, driver shortage, employee health insurance,” she said.

Could VRT get more funds in the future?

Despite the obstacles, Clegg said she is in discussions with legislators and feels “confident” about the possibility of finding a way to bring in more money for public transit.

“I’m really excited and confident about having some conversations about the future and what we need as a state to respond to the kind of growth that we’re having,” Clegg said. She said she’s committed to examining all the funding mechanisms that could be available in Idaho and the politically feasible changes.

“I do think there’s a recognition that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll end up like everywhere else that did what we are doing,” she said, noting that “nobody” likes driving in cities like Los Angeles, which has expansive California freeways but is infamous for its congestion.

If VRT were to be granted taxing authority, that would likely require a referendum, Clegg said.

Compass, the region’s planning association, plans to begin a study later this summer to get “solid, comprehensive data on how public transportation is funded throughout the U.S.,” spokesperson Amy Luft said in an email. Clegg said Compass’s report could inform how VRT proceeds.

Boise’s zoning code rewrite, which is set to come before City Council for passage this month, includes provisions that would encourage denser development along corridors with enhanced public transit.

VRT is collecting data from the public to see which changes would be preferred.

“We’re at a point now, the way our community is growing and folks moving here, where we really have to think carefully about what we want it to look like in 10 years,” Brush said. “If we change nothing about how we fund transit, what will our traffic look like? What will our land use look like?”