These days, the Boise mayor and council seem deeply uninterested in addressing urban decay problems south of the Boise River. Hundreds of Boiseans are at risk of being evicted from rickety trailer parks and hundreds of school children walk to school in dangerous conditions without sidewalks, yet the city is spending huge amounts of energy (and, possibly, money) on a downtown streetcar.

Boise City should be spending stimulus and other money on finally helping neglected Bench neighborhoods with better housing, reinvestment and life-safety features such as sidewalks. Unlike the downtown streetcar, these are all urgent needs.

In the past two years, at least four mobile home parks have closed in Boise and Garden City. In contrast to the streetcar committee of movers and shakers, trailer park residents are the moved and the shaken. According to a Boise State University study, about 5,400 Boiseans live in manufactured housing. Half are seniors and a quarter, astoundingly, live on $900 a month or less. Most are women and nearly half have a chronic medical condition. One in four live in a park listed for sale or redevelopment.

This issue has receded with the economy, but it will return and what is the city doing now to prepare? Helping these people is complex job that will require imagination and commitment, but it could be done in partnership with local housing agencies, the Capital City Development Corporation and federal stimulus funds.

If that’s not enough of a priority, the city could focus on building sidewalks, the lack of which is a serious safety issue on the Bench. One of the reasons our family and three children moved from the Bench was the severe lack of sidewalks; we just didn’t feel safe letting our kids walk to school. Nowadays sidewalks are required – much like electricity, indoor plumbing and fire codes – but the city decades ago allowed Bench neighborhoods to be built to primitive standards. Now is a good time to go back and fix this and connect these sidewalks with the new schools the Boise School District recently built. (Indeed, the Boise School District has done far more reinvestment in neglected neighborhoods than the city.)

If the city really wants a streetcar for the economic benefits that come with it, I suggest it build a streetcar line between the crumbling strip mall at Orchard/Emerald and the mostly vacant strip mall at Orchard/Overland. Don’t laugh – a streetcar in fact used to run on Orchard Street! A modern line there would spark private-sector urban renewal the city wants and show Bench neighborhoods that they, too, are worth the good stuff. After 40 years, the city has done a great job with downtown. It is a decade overdue for the city to turn its urban renewal efforts to the Bench.

The city will say the federal funds are only for transit projects, not for sidewalks or developing decent housing, but I think that’s just hiding behind process. If there’s a sincere political will to build sidewalks or help people who are about to lose their homes, the city will find a way to do it; the money is out there. In fact, on Dec. 1, The Statesman reported new federal grants for “projects that connect destinations and foster the redevelopment of communities into walkable, mixed use, high-density environments.”

This sounds just like what we need in some places south of the Boise River. I implore the city to stop doting over downtown and get to the real work of improving lives and safety in neglected Bench neighborhoods. Follow your consciences.