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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Transportation Improvement Program: Treasure Valley High-Capacity Alternatives Analysis

If you’ve been following my blog the past few weeks you are aware that the draft Regional Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) for fiscal years 2012 – 2016 is open for comment through Monday, July 25, 2011. Please take a few minutes to review the projects and provide your input. You can do so by clicking on the link above.

At COMPASS one of the most common comments we hear is, “There should be a train between Caldwell and Boise. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?!”

Trust me, we have.

Communities in Motion, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties, identifies the need for some sort of “high capacity” transit between Caldwell and Boise. That could be some type of train, or it could be something else. However, moving from an identified need to constructing a high-capacity transit system is not a simple process.

COMPASS and Valley Regional Transit conducted studies to explore the feasibility, costs, and benefits of a high capacity service, which were good first steps. However, if we hope to use federal dollars to eventually build the system, we must also conduct an official “alternatives analysis,” known as an “AA.” It will determine the best route and mode of transit for the conditions in our region. We cannot simply decide we want a certain type of transit in a certain location. We must evaluate multiple options to find the best solution.

COMPASS has been actively pursuing funding for an AA for several years. In 2008, 2010, and 2011, we requested federal high-priority grant appropriations (earmarks) to conduct the AA, but did not receive funding. COMPASS also applied for a federal “TIGER II Planning Grant” to conduct the analysis. We did not receive that funding either.

An AA is now included in the TIP in “preliminary development,” meaning the AA will be funded in the near future. At this point there is no plan (or money) for actual construction. The draft TIP allocates $1 million to conduct an AA. The next update to Communities in Motion (due in 2014) will be used to help decide if the AA should focus on potential corridors south of the Boise River (e.g., the rail corridor, the interstate) or north of the Boise River (e.g., Highway 44/State Street).

One million dollars is not enough money to conduct the entire required detailed analysis. However, it gives us a starting point. We will carefully choose how that money is spent to conduct portions of the analysis that have the longest “shelf life.” That is, we’ll focus on those items that will remain valid for the longest time. We want to avoid a situation where the first parts of our analysis become too old to use before the last parts are finished.

While the AA is a necessary step, it is not our biggest hurdle, nor is the funding to build the system the biggest issue. The elephant in the room is that there is no funding to operate such a system. Until we have a dedicated funding source to pay for day-to-day operations, the rest is moot.

That is another issue altogether, and one we’ll continue to work on. In the meantime, we will begin by laying the early groundwork for a high capacity transit system through the AA process.

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Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho

COMPASS is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization responsible for transportation planning in Ada and Canyon Counties. The COMPASS Board comprises 39 members representing the cities, counties, highway districts, educational institutions, state agencies, and other entities within the two counties. COMPASS plays an important role in making decisions about future long-range transportation needs in the Treasure Valley, taking into consideration environmental and economic factors that affect the quality of life.