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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.

While I risk upsetting people in the building industry,  I support recent legislation by Rep. John “Bert” Stevenson, R-Rupert, intended to charge new homes and businesses a fee for electrical system expansion.

The development industry will likely oppose this measure, but it would be shortsighted of them to do so. Idaho Power is in a near-continuous state of asking the PUC for rate increases, in part to extend power lines and build more power plants.  This isn’t fair to existing customers and it reduces opportunities for new businesses that want to set up here. Idaho Power can’t raise its rates enough to effectively deliver power, so our region has to turn away prospective industries because we can’t supply them with electricity. Existing residents are asked to pay for newcomers. The system doesn’t serve anyone very well.

A better system (what I understand Stevenson is proposing) would be  similar to how cities charge for sewer hookups. Your monthly sewer bill is strictly for maintenance and operation – none of it goes for capacity expansion. When a new home hooks up to Boise City’s sewer system, though, the developer must pay $3,150, which goes into a fund for future treatment plant expansions and new lines. That keeps the city from charging existing customers for growth, yet growth can happen because the city can fund it.

Imagine if, in the Fall of 2007, two major employers could have relocated here, because Idaho Power had a chest of money collected from impact fees and specifically set aside for new growth. Idaho Power would have been in a much better position to step forward with a plan to accommodate the new industries. The same building industry that might oppose these fees would profit greatly from the new homes and businesses that would result.

The Public Utilities Commission said Stevenson’s measure could help utilities recover costs of some growth-related capital expansion, though existing customers should bear some of the increases when facilities are expanded. That’s fair enough. The Ada County Highway District’s impact fees, first levied in 1992, aren’t intended to cover the complete costs of growth.

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.