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Trains have strong romantic appeal, but from a functional perspective, they are hopelessly unable of meeting the needs of a modern sprawling city and its residents’ demand for point-to-point flexibility.

That’s starting to sink in, after decades of local planners and wonks hoping for a commuter train system. A story in today’s Idaho Statesman quotes national experts who spoke in Boise, saying a train system faces enormous obstacles here because of track quality, too many crossings, insufficient right-of-way and high cost. However, the experts (at least in the story) didn’t discuss the inherent shortcomings of rail as a transportation technology and how we have done an exceptionally poor job of requiring rail-friendly land use.

The only reason rail technology evolved is because the first machines that could convert matter into motion (steam engines) weighed tens of thousands of pounds. There were no roads to accommodate steam engines, but rails could be built to sustain the massive weight and allow them to move people and goods faster than they had ever moved before. To make up for the lack of point-to-point flexibility, people had to unload the trains and put themselves and goods on smaller, light-rail trains or electric trolleys.

Urban theorists like Kevin Lynch hold the dominant transportation technology determines the built form of a city: ancient cities relied on humans and animals, port cities relied on ships, Industrial Revolution cities relied on the rail and modern cities rely on the automobile. Not surprisingly, entire cities and small towns were designed around the limitations of the train. For a hundred years and more, the system worked.

By the time the automobile began to eclipse the train some 80 years ago, trains had nearly a century of capital and investment behind them, so they remain common to this day. Trains still work well for some things, like moving large volumes of heavy cargo, where train cars can be lifted and moved onto ships and intermodal inconvenience is kept to a minimum.

But trains are hopelessly outmoded in a modern city. True, a rail car would be able to zip quickly past Interstate 84 traffic jams, but could it take people to where they needed to go (downtown, Micron, West Boise office parks, etc.)? People being dropped off near the Boise Towne Square mall, for example, would be left at what is agruably the most pedestrian-hostile environment in Idaho. If only something could take them a little closer to their office park, the system would be much more useful!

For their part, Idaho cities have done virtually nothing to require the kind of urban design necessary for trains: buildings that come to the street, residential and commercial sharing the same property and a nice public realm – you know, the built form of classic Main Street America.

It’s not a question of population. Around a century ago, a commuter rail system operated profitably, albeit briefly, in the Boise Valley, when our population was much smaller. It’s a question of the built form of the city. With the exception of the original downtowns and neighborhoods, Treasure Valley cities are built to automotive scale, with large parking lots, huge streets and a serious lack of sidewalks.

The humble bus, however, bridges these needs nicely. In fact, with a little imagination, we could combine the advantages of trains (route priority) with the advantages of rubber-wheeled vehicles (flexibility). The concept is the Curb Guided Busway, used to good advantage in Adelaide, Australia and Nagoya, Japan:

..the O-Bahn runs on specially-built track, combining elements of both bus and rail systems … Interchanges allow buses to enter and exit the busway and to continue on suburban routes, avoiding the need for passengers to change. Buses travel at a maximum speed of 100 km/h (62 mph), and the busway is capable of carrying 18,000 passengers an hour from the City of Adelaide

The busway is a low concrete trough and the busses are fitted with “guide wheels”

The guide-wheel, which protrudes from the front sides and aligns with the track, is the most important part of the bus when travelling on the O-Bahn. Connected directly to the steering mechanism, it ‘steers’ the bus while on the track and prevents the main tyres from rubbing against the sides of the track.

So, a busway system wouldn’t require an expensive refurbishment of rails or highly specialized vehicles. We could also take advantage of our existing rail rights-of-way, so when a bus crosses over an arterial street, the crossing arms could swing down, allowing the bus to pass, just as they already do with a train. Or, the bus could leave the busway and move about on city streets, something a train could never do. As an added benefit, emergency vehicles could use the busway system.

This still wouldn’t be cheap. We’d have to pave the rail corridors, design new interchanges and educate drivers on a new transportation mode. However, given the obstacles to developing rail and the limited return we’d get for it, a Curb Guided Busway seems like the best bet.

We own a home on Randolph Drive, on the Boise Bench overlooking Bishop Kelly High School. My family lived in the home from July 2001 until July 2007, when we moved to Hidden Springs. Over the years, we volunteered in various ways in the Borah Neighborhood Association (Barbara is modest but she did start the annual Chili Festival in 2002) and McKinley Elementary.

It’s a large home, 3,300 square feet, and difficult to rent in the current market. At the same time, about a year ago, I started doing public relations work for New Hope Community Health. During that time, I became very familiar with New Hope’s mission and model and came to support them personally. After a while, I came to realize that a house of our size could be put to use helping people. I approached New Hope with the idea of using our home for their transitional housing program and we agreed to a one-year lease.

When we had everything finalized, I sent out this news release announcing our open house; it pretty much sums up everything I have to say at this point. So far, no one has expressed much upset at the development but the day is still young. Needless to say, the Feb. 20 open house will be an interesting meeting for all involved.

New Hope Community Health opens home in Borah Neighborhood
Open house Feb. 20 will allow neighbors to meet new residents of home

For more information
Martin Johncox 658-9100
Dennis Mansfield, 353-3252 & 672-9200

New Hope Community Health, a for-profit business dedicated to providing
housing, treatment and social services to recovering substance abusers, is
opening a staffed recovery home at 6904 Randolph Drive and will hold an open
house there on Friday, Feb. 20, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Martin and Barbara Johncox of Boise own the home and used to live there.
Martin will attend the open house, as well as residents and representatives
from the city of Boise and New Hope .

“We are trusting New Hope with our home and we have faith in their ability
to be a good neighbor,” Johncox said. “I will keep a close watch on the home
and I want neighbors to call me with any thoughts or concerns. We hope they
will attend this open house and get to meet these people.”

New Hope operates 10 homes in the Treasure Valley, assisting over 100 men
and women, and there is a backlog of over 100 potential residents.
Initially, seven men will live at the Randolph home but the number could
rise to the allowable federal limit of 12. Admission to the program is
competitive and ex-addicts can stay in the program for up to a year and a

Most – but not all – of the residents have been released from incarceration.
As a condition of living in the home, residents must attend treatment; work
or be looking for work or be in job training; attend religious instruction;
obey all laws and restrictions; and share in household expenses, chores and

Residents who fail to abide by the rules will be dismissed from the program
and face possible return to prison or they must attempt to make it on their
own. People convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, arson and similar
crimes are not allowed in the program.

“The people we help are being released into the community one way or the
other – they are your friends, neighbors and family,” said New Hope
Executive Director Dennis Mansfield. “We give them guidance, Bible study,
treatment and employment help. With this kind of supervision, our clients
have a better shot at becoming productive members of society again.”

The Federal Fair Housing Act protects recovering addicts from
housing discrimination
( Among other things, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race,
religion, sex, national origin, familial status or disability.

Elliot Werk, president of the Borah Neighborhood Association, sent this email to some association members. I agree with the sentiments in Elliot’s letter, although I would point out that there’s more than just federal law protecting the housing rights of recovering addicts.  In some neighborhoods, people  have been “unwelcome” for a variety of reasons, including their race, ethnicity, religious beliefs and disabilities. Housing is a human rights issue, because in a free society, free people must have the opportunity live anywhere.

In any case, I look forward to making this home a good neighbor, and its residents contributing members of the neighborhood.

Subject: New Hope Transitional Home at 6904 Randolph Drive
Date: Tue, 10 Feb 2009 17:07:49 -0700


Today in the Idaho Statesman there was an announcement that New Hope Community Health is planning to open a transitional home for former inmates at 6904 Randolph Drive. You can see the announcement at

I know that transitional homes have been a hot topic since Dennis Mansfield and company began business last year. The purpose of this message is to let you know that the Borah Neighborhood Association is engaging with New Hope in an effort to help ensure that this home is run with consideration for the neighborhood and with the necessary oversight to ensure peace and safety.

It is important to know that for over a decade our neighborhood had a transitional home called Hayes House located in the area to the west of Cole Road. This home housed wayward youth and teens. When it first opened there were a great many issues in the neighborhood. As a result the neighbors worked with the Idaho Youth Ranch (the owners) to create a committee that actively worked with Hayes management to ensure proper operation. With the help of this committee the Hayes Home operated virtually trouble-free for over a decade. We also had a transitional home on Holiday drive for about five years. This home also operated without incident.

I am meeting with New Hope in the next few days to discuss their plans for the home and to try and develop a positive relationship with them. I am hopeful that with vigilance and engagement we can help New Hope to operate a model transitional home that will blend in with our neighborhood.

It is important to note that we cannot stop New Hope from opening this home – they are protected by federal law. What we can do is help them to make this home into a model of efficient operation so that our neighborhood is not disrupted or negatively impacted.

If you have any comments, suggestions, or wish to serve on an advisory council for this home please contact me. To take a look at New Hope’s website to gain an understanding of what this home will be please go to

Thank you for remaining calm and for helping your neighborhood association to positively engage with New Hope. Everyone deserves the opportunity to a fresh start and I am hopeful that we can work well with New Hope to provide that opportunity for these men.

Elliot Werk, President
Borah Neighborhood Association.
PS. Just so you know, I live three houses east of the transitional house location.

Gov. Butch Otter has been criticized as being cool to Idaho’s tech sector, instead favoring old-school businesses like ag, lumber and mining, even as those make up a dwindling part of the state’s economy.

Otter possibly drove a spike through the heart of those assertions – literally – by pounding a spike into a Western Ada County field to symbolically kick off a visionary plan to make a Silicon Valley-style development.  ESTech ( Eagle Star Technology Corridor) would be a business park on nearly 80,000 acres of land that would house a variety of technological companies and be a local effort by government in both Eagle and Star. A group of businesses seeking to make Idaho a destination for tech industries hatched the idea and Otter has signed on in support.

Otter said there is money in the Department of Commerce to help pay for infrastructure like water and sewage, which is also good to hear. There are several obstacles, however. Idaho Power has trouble providing much new electricity and there will be transportation issues to work out as well. Given the current state of the credit markets, financing will be hard to come by. If the governor is too far ahead of the Legislature on this issue, which is very likely, he might face some opposition; it isn’t clear to me, however, how much support he would need from the Legislature.

From an urban planning perspective, it would be better to use the many vacant commercial properties in the area, but that may not be possible due to the need to concentrate the industry.

The vision would also diversify Idaho’s technology industry, which has been heavy on manufacturing and lighter on software development.  But with Micron and HP shedding jobs, diversification is essential.