Monday, December 29, 2014

How do we pay for transportation, anyway?

We have been talking a lot about our transportation funding needs and shortfall between now and 2040 – for Ada and Canyon Counties we project $359 million in annual transportation funding needs, but only $200 million in annual transportation funding, for a shortfall of $159 million per year.

You are probably aware that COMPASS supports increasing transportation funding to help bridge this gap, and that the transportation funding issue will likely be discussed in depth at both the state and federal levels in 2015. I encourage you to be part of that conversation; however, I know it can be difficult to do that without first understanding where the money comes from now. Let me try to shed some light…

Simply put, funding for our transportation system is first collected through taxes by various branches of our government, then distributed to transportation agencies to maintain and improve our transportation system. Transportation funding is designed to primarily be a user-pay system, with the majority of the money coming from fuel taxes. The concept is simple: the more you drive, the more fuel you use, the more you pay in fuel tax. That tax, in turn, is used to build and maintain the transportation system.

However, once we move beyond the very basics, it gets complicated quickly.  

Where does transportation funding come from, and who collects it?
As I mentioned above, most transportation funding comes directly from transportation “users” through fuel taxes, as well as registration fees, impact fees (fees paid by developers to offset costs due to growth), and public transportation fares. Some funding also comes from more general taxes, such as property taxes.

Fuel taxes are collected by both the federal government (18 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24 cents per gallon for diesel) and the State of Idaho (25 cents per gallon for both gas and diesel). It is important to note that these amounts have not changed since the mid-1990s and do not change with the price of fuel. Because the tax rates have remained unchanged for 20 years, they have not kept pace with inflation. This, combined with more fuel efficient vehicles and national trends that show that people are driving less, means that the “user-pay” concept isn’t working as it once was. Costs are continuing to increase, but the funds to pay for those expenses are not.

Vehicle registration fees are collected by the Ada County Highway District (ACHD), through a local option registration fee approved by voters, and by the State of Idaho. Valley Regional Transit and ACHD Commuteride both collect fares from users, and ACHD and the City of Nampa both also levy transportation impact fees on new development. In addition, local municipalities can use a portion of property taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure and services. Valley Regional Transit operations are mainly supported by local cities, primarily from property taxes.

How is transportation funding spent, and by whom?
Here is where things get really complicated. Unfortunately, there isn’t just one “pot” of transportation money to draw from. Each of the different types of taxes, above, have strings attached that limit how they can be spent. In addition, in some cases funding is further divided into different funding “silos,” even within one funding source. I’ve highlighted just a few examples below to give you a feel for how this works. 
  • Federal Fuel Tax: Fuel taxes collected by the federal government are returned to the states. Idaho is in the enviable position of receiving more back from federal fuel tax than it pays in – at least $1.50 for every $1 contributed. A portion of the federal funding that comes to Idaho is specifically for the Idaho Transportation Department to use on state managed highways. The rest of the funding is for use by local transportation departments, based on size – some funding is for rural areas, some is for small urban areas, some is specifically for the “Boise Urbanized Area” (basically northern Ada County). Some of those funding “silos” are further divided, with specific funding allocated for safety, for bridges, for public transportation, for roads, etc. 
  • State of Idaho Fuel Tax: Funding from this tax is divided between the Idaho Transportation Department to fund state highways and local transportation departments (cities and highway districts) to fund local roads. Per the Idaho constitution, fuel taxes cannot be used to fund public transportation, leaving Idaho without dedicated public transportation funding. 
  • Impact Fees: These fees, collected from developers in the City of Nampa and within Ada County, can only be used for transportation projects related to new development, and cannot be used for maintenance or operating costs. For example, impact fees could be used to add stoplights to accommodate increased traffic, but not to pay snow plow drivers. The specifics of how these fees can and cannot be used is spelled out in state law. It’s important to note that those fees do not have to be used at the exact site of the development; they can be used for traffic improvements to address growth-related challenges within the jurisdiction of the agency that collected the fees, based on specific criteria. 
So, what does all this mean to me?
You will undoubtedly hear more about transportation funding at both the state and federal levels over the coming months. As you form your opinions on what should be done, keep the following points in mind: 

The current system of funding our transportation system primarily with gas taxes no longer works as intended. Something needs to change. This may be raising the gas tax, augmenting the gas tax with additional funding mechanisms, or changing our expectations of what our transportation system should do for us…basically, consciously choosing to forgo maintenance and not expand to accommodate growth. Personally, I think it will take a combination of all of these.

The “silo” issue needs to be part of the discussion when looking at transportation funding options:

  • We can’t simply move money around to solve our funding problems. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t want X; spend the money on Y instead.” That often simply isn’t possible. For example, if we want to widen I-84, we can’t simply take our “public transportation” money and put it toward widening the interstate. Or, we may have federal money we can use to buy more buses, but we don’t have enough money for the fuel to operate them. We can’t simply use the money designated for buying buses to pay for fuel. Within the current system, our funding can only be used within the appropriate “silos.” 
  • Funding a more robust transportation system isn’t just about raising more money; it’s also about raising money that can be used to meet identified needs. As we explore new funding mechanisms or increasing the amount we collect from current sources, moving away from “silos” would provide flexibility to allow an individual jurisdiction to use transportation funding to best meet its transportation needs, whatever those may be. 

Don’t let the Treasure Valley fall through the cracks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bikes, Transit, and BUGS…Oh My!

We talk a lot about providing a more multi-modal transportation system, and I am frequently asked if we are making any progress. I can answer with a resounding, “yes”: we are making progress. You don’t need to look any further than this year’s Leadership in Motion award winners to see that we are definitely making strides in that direction.

The projects, organizations, and people honored at this year’s awards presentation reflect the spectrum of transportation options – roadways, transit, and bicycles and pedestrians. In addition, we honored the Boise Urban Garden School (BUGS) – an organization seemingly outside the transportation “world,” but whose work with youth on gardening and healthy, active living soundly supports the goals and vision of Communities in Motion 2040, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties.

While our winners are diverse, what they all have in common is a look toward the future. The individuals, agencies, and organizations have all looked beyond “what is” to “what could be,” and the Treasure Valley is, and will be, a better place for it. We are all indebted to these leaders for their foresight and fortitude to make our lives better.

I list our recipients below. I encourage you to visit to learn more about their accomplishments.

Leadership in Government, Canyon County
·   City of Caldwell
o Ustick/Indiana Roundabout Project

Leadership in Government, Ada County
·   Ada County Highway District 
o Bicycle Education and Outreach Project

Leadership by Example, Private Business
·   Gardner Company

Leadership by Example, Nonprofit
·   Boise Urban Garden School

Leadership by Example, Elected Official
·   Commissioner John S. Franden, Ada County Highway District 

Leadership in Practice, Professional
·   Matt Edmond, AICPAda County Highway District 

Congratulations and thank you all for your vision and leadership.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Communities in Motion 2040: Now the Real Work Begins…

I often hear complaints that all COMPASS does is plan…as soon as we finish one plan we start on the “next” plan, and leave the plan we just finished sitting on the shelf.

I must admit, the part about starting on the “next” plan almost immediately after one plan is adopted is true. We must update the long-range transportation plan (Communities in Motion) every four years, and it takes nearly four years to complete the process, so we do start again right away. In fact, our current plan, Communities in Motion 2040, was adopted by our Board in July, and in October our Board approved the scope of work to update that plan.

BUT…that’s not the whole story. One thing that is different this time around is that we have kept the horizon year (the ending year of the plan) at 2040, instead of moving it ahead as we have done in the past. Communities in Motion 2040 provides excellent “bones” for a long-range transportation plan, and the update will add more “meat” to the bones. Keeping the horizon year at 2040 allows COMPASS to refine the plan and to focus our efforts on implementation.

Below I share just a sample of the work COMPASS has already begun to implement Communities in Motion 2040; each of these addresses specific goals outlined in the plan.

ü  Grant Implementation Program. In early 2014 COMPASS kicked off a program to provide small grants to COMPASS member agencies to assist with local projects that implement the goals of Communities in Motion. COMPASS awarded grants in 2014 to the Cities of Middleton, Kuna, and Wilder, and will open applications for 2015 grants in January. Learn more

ü  Farm Freight Study. Agriculture is one of the primary economic drivers in the area, particularly in Canyon County, yet very little is known about the transportation routes and needs associated with farm freight. In July, COMPASS began work on a farm freight study to identify important routes used for hauling farm produce from fields to processors, and from processors to market. Identification of those key routes is a first step in ensuring they are preserved and well-maintained so they can continue to serve the agricultural community.

ü  Look! Save a Life! Bicyclists and pedestrians are a vital and growing segment of our population and our transportation users. To promote safety, COMPASS spread the word about the importance of sharing the road by sponsoring the Boise Police Department’s Look! Save a Life! television campaign in September and October 2014, and is co-sponsoring a workshop on urban bikeway design hosted by Boise State University. We will continue to work with our partners to increase safety and reduce bicycle and pedestrian collisions.

ü  Regional Pathway Plan. Ada and Canyon Counties have a myriad of pathways, most notably the Boise River Greenbelt, and even more pathways are in various stages of planning. While just about any pathway can provide amenities for exercise and enjoyment, for a pathway to truly be used for transportation, it must go somewhere or connect to something. COMPASS is developing a regional pathway plan to map the locations of current and future pathways across the two-county area, identify gaps in the pathway system, and establish priorities for pathway funding to create a more comprehensive, useable pathway system across the valley.

ü  The biggest issue raised in Communities in Motion 2040 was the fact that there is not enough funding to complete transportation corridors and projects needed to be prepared for the future. To help raise the awareness of this issue, and the dire need to do something about it, COMPASS has initiated the Don’t let the Treasure Valley fall through the cracks! campaign. The campaign includes a new web page, weekly Facebook posts, education series speakers, radio messages, blogs, and more that will continue throughout 2015.

ü  Last, but not least, COMPASS has been working on a “performance-based planning” approach – basically, how do we take what we learn through implementing this plan and use it to inform, and improve, the “next” plan? This is something that all metropolitan planning organizations in the nation must do, and COMPASS is on the leading edge. Through Communities in Motion 2040, we have developed 56 performance measures and targets. We are tracking progress toward targets to document progress (or not) and better comprehend what changes need to be made to improve our success. Anyone can view our targets and data at any time via an online performance dashboard or the biennial Change in Motion report. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

What do we want, what do we need, and what can we really afford?

As our society has grown more affluent, the lines between “wants” and “needs” seems to get blurred. When asked to distinguish between “wants” and “needs,” I have heard people list items such as cable or satellite TV or their daily latte in the “needs” categories. They say these are things they absolutely, positively could not live without. 


While I enjoy watching football on TV as much as anyone (maybe more) and love a good cup of coffee, I’m not convinced these are “needs.” If forced to choose between these and other “needs,” such as feeding my family, keeping a roof over our heads, and simply having the time to be a dad to my kids, coffee and football don’t make the cut.

The second question is, what can I afford? Can I afford everything I need? What about everything I want? If we look at our needs realistically, most of us can truly afford everything we need and much of what we want. Where we run into trouble is distinguishing between the two, and deciding how we will pay for those things we want, but can’t afford. Will we go into debt? Take an extra job? Or, do without?

COMPASS’s job is to look at our regional transportation needs. In Communities in Motion 2040COMPASS has identified 33 unfunded priorities—our transportation needs to accommodate the growing population between now and 2040. These needs are based on an additional 422,160 people; 186,000 households; and 221,000 jobs in the two-county area—the equivalent of adding almost two new cities the size of Boise or five cities the size of Nampa. 

Some of you are likely asking yourselves right now, “are these ‘needs’ truly ‘needs’? That is, would we survive without them?”

In literal terms, for the most part, most of us will survive without these improvements. Unfortunately, the increased number of vehicles on the road, coupled with few improvements, will present significant safety issues which can make this a life and death issue in some situations. I will discuss safety issues more in a later blog.

Beyond safety, what do those unfunded needs mean to those of us who live in the Treasure Valley? If they remain unfunded, the average number of hours, per weekday, spent stuck in traffic would increase by more than 15 times (!) from an average of 27,670 hours per weekday to 430,350. To look at it another way, it would take twice as long to drive to many destinations; for example, the average drive time from Caldwell to downtown Boise would increase from 34 minutes today to 70 by 2040.

This affects our quality of life, our wallet, and the region’s economy. The cost of goods will go up, as it takes freight longer to reach its destination (after all, time is money!); response times for emergency vehicles will increase; we will spend less time with our families and more time in the car; farmers, manufacturers, and others will have a harder time getting their goods to market; and more.

What would it cost to meet those unfunded needs? That is, what can we afford? COMPASS estimates it would cost about $359 million per year, of which 44% ($159 million per year) is currently unfunded. That is our gap. I know it sounds huge, but it is doable. Based on our current population, that equates to about $755 per year per household – only about $2 per household per day – less than a latte. Is that worth more time with your family? You decide.

Don’t let the Treasure Valley fall through the cracks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Transportation Funding – What Does it Really Mean to Me?

You have probably seen or heard news stories about funding our transportation system – from concerns over funding for vital regional projects, to the near bankruptcy of the federal highway trust fund, to debates on transportation funding in the Idaho legislature.

All of this may leave you wondering, “What does this mean to me…?”
  • Is our transportation system really in dire need of more money? If so, why?
  • How much money is needed? What would it be used for?
  • What would it cost me?
  • How do we pay for our transportation system anyway?
  • Are “they” going to raise my gas tax and make me pay more at the pump?
  • Is raising the gas tax the only option? Are there other things we can do locally?
  • If we raise more transportation dollars, will we get a better bus system? What about more sidewalks and bike paths?
  • If we don’t do anything, what will happen? Will it hurt our economy? Will our bridges collapse? Will I be stuck in traffic every day?

COMPASS is going to be addressing all of these questions, and more, over the next year in an intensive effort to raise the level of the conversation about transportation funding and what it really means to all of us.

We have created a new webpage to specifically address funding issues. In addition, be watching for monthly posts here in my blog, weekly “Did you Know?” facts on the COMPASS Facebook page, news articles, education series speakers (January – May 2015), and more, all addressing the many issues that surround transportation funding.

Take a moment to share your comments, concerns, or questions regarding transportation funding below (click on the “comment” button) …let’s make this a true regional “conversation” about this key issue and how it affects us all. 

Don't let the Treasure Valley fall through the cracks.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Because inquiring minds want to know!

What do you want to know? Are you interested in how traffic congestion impacts how long it takes you to get from “Point A” to “Point B”? Or, are you more interested in how walkable our schools are, how many people are riding the bus, or how well the region is doing in preserving its existing farmland?

COMPASS has a new tool to help you find the answers to all of these questions and more. Visit the NEW COMPASS online dashboard ( to pick your topic, then drill down into maps, charts, graphs, and more. 

Find regional data relating to the eight planning elements in Communities in Motion 2040, the 17 goals associated with those elements, and performance measures to track progress toward meeting those goals.

When and how can the COMPASS dashboard help you?
  • When making decisions that affect your community…Consider current conditions and how they compare to regional (Communities in Motion) and local goals when making transportation, land use, or other decisions. Will your decision help “move the needle” toward meeting regional goals?
  • When preparing grant applications…Use the information as presented – or access the data behind it – to provide a snapshot of local and regional conditions and trends to help get that funding you need for your project. 
  • When writing articles and reports…Find data and information to provide context or supporting documentation for news articles, professional research, or even school reports. 
  • When tracking issues or areas important to you…Whether you’re a parent who cares about access to parks and schools, a health professional concerned about access to healthy foods, or an interested citizen who just wants to see what things look like in your neighborhood, you’ll find data, maps, graphs, and more that tell the story you care about. 
  • When providing your comments to COMPASS and other agencies…How does the project or plan you are commenting on fit into the larger picture? Consider Communities in Motion goals and use the dashboard to see where we are now and where we want to be. Does the project or plan you are commenting on help fulfill Communities in Motion goals? 

Finally, I encourage you to a look just because it’s interesting. I find myself going in to the dashboard to look for one specific piece of information, then clicking on all sorts of other topics just to see what’s there. The amount of information in the dashboard is mind-boggling and will continue to expand as we are able to gather and track more and more data. Our goal is to provide a tool that is useful to the community as a whole, so if there are data sets you would like to have added, contact COMPASS and let us know. 

While the dashboard is intuitive and user friendly, even for novice users, it also provides many more powerful functions than meet the eye, including allowing the users to download the data for their own use. COMPASS staff will provide training in the near future to assist users in learning how to access and take advantage of these more advanced functions. Watch the COMPASS website ( and email blasts for more details.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Final Installment…Communities in Motion: Why Do You Care?

As you are likely aware, Communities in Motion 2040 was approved by the COMPASS Board of Directors in July. We are now moving from the “planning” stage to the “implementation” stage of the plan.

Throughout the planning process I have shared with you comments submitted by members of the public regarding why they care…or think others should care…about long-range planning in general and Communities in Motion in particular. Since the plan is now adopted, we have wrapped up this exercise, so this is my final blog in the “Why do you care?” series.

Without further ado, here is the final list of reasons submitted by you of why you care:
  • Transportation leads to jobs, which lead to higher paying jobs, which is people’s concern.
  • Don’t take what we have for granted – it didn’t just happen. Past generations planned and paid for the infrastructure we have today – it didn’t just materialize.
  • We need to work together for the greater good – it’s for everyone.
  • We should visualize what it would be like without good infrastructure – use our resources wisely so we continue to have it as good as we do now.
  • We need to work now to solve/avoid current and future problems – congestion, delay, and lack of mobility, and work to keep access to recreation/outdoors close to home.
  • We should maximize our use of limited resources for the greater good.
  • People cared before us and built for us.  We should pay it forward with planning and monetary investments.
  • We need to raise awareness that resources will be limited in the future, even if they aren’t now.
  • I think people should care about transportation, and especially alternative transportation, because every time I ride my bike in a bike lane that is so narrow in places that it isn’t even large enough for the “bike lane” symbol, every time I begin to cross State Street (with the green light and pedestrian “walk” sign lit!), and nearly get run over by an obstinately ignorant right-turning car, and every time I breathe deep in sheer joy at my daily commute on the greenbelt, I am more convinced than ever that we, as a community and a society, must fundamentally change the parameters of how we go about getting from point A to point B.  This earth we inhabit, and indeed our very lives, depends upon it.

While we have completed our four-year exercise of continually asking “why do you care?” that doesn’t mean that question, or the answers to it, are any less important. As was stated by more than one person above, past generations cared about the future and we have benefitted from that. It is now our job to do the same for our children and grandchildren.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why does COMPASS have so many different plans?

In July, the COMPASS Board adopted Communities in Motion 2040, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties. Now COMPASS is asking for your comments on proposed changes to the Transportation Service Coordination Plan for Ada and Canyon Counties. This has raised a lot of questions. Are they the same thing? If not, how are the two plans different? How do they relate to each other? Why does COMPASS have so many different plans in the first place?

Let me answer these in order.

1. Are the two plans the same thing? No. While they are both transportation plans for Ada and Canyon Counties, Communities in Motion 2040 and the Transportation Service Coordination Plan for Ada and Canyon Counties are not the same thing.

2. How do the two plans differ? Basically, Communities in Motion 2040 is a long-range plan that discusses all transportation modes for all individuals and the Transportation Service Coordination Plan is a shorter-range plan specifically to address the public transportation needs of older adults and individuals with disabilities. Additional differences and similarities are shown in the side-by-side comparison below:

Communities in Motion
Transportation Service
Coordination Plan
Area covered
Ada and Canyon Counties
Ada and Canyon Counties
Time frame
Long term; plans to the year 2040
Short term; plans for the immediate future
All modes of transportation for all populations
Public transportation for older adults and individuals with disabilities
To plan a transportation system to meet future needs based on projected growth in population and jobs within projected financial constraints
To improve current transportation services for older adults and individuals with disabilities; specifically to coordinate transportation access, minimize duplication of services, and facilitate the most appropriate cost-effective transportation possible
By the US Department of Transportation for any area with a population over 50,000 to received federal transportation funds
By the Federal Transit Administration (part of the US Department of Transportation) to receive federal transportation funds specifically for older adults and individuals with disabilities.

3. How do the two plans relate to each other? Communities in Motion 2040 sets the stage and establishes a vision, goals, and performance metrics that are then reflected in the Transportation Service Coordination Plan. For example, the Transportation Service Coordination Plan prioritizes near-term public transportation projects for older adults and individual with disabilities that align with the goals and vision of Communities in Motion 2040. In addition, performance metrics established for the Transportation Service Coordination Plan mirror those developed for Communities in Motion 2040.

4. Why does COMPASS have so many plans? While multiple plans may seem duplicative, they do serve different needs and plan at different levels of detail and for different time periods. Developing strategies to meet immediate needs for public transportation services for specific populations, such as in the Transportation Service Coordination Plan, is very different than planning for all populations across all modes of transportation to meet needs 26 years into the future, as Communities in Motion does.

To put this in a personal perspective, just as you may be separately, but simultaneously, planning for your retirement and your next vacation – different goals with unique needs and different time frames – different transportation plans, even plans developed at the same, fulfill distinct, yet equally important, roles.

I encourage you to take a few moments to review and comment on the Transportation Service Coordination Plan particularly if you are a public transportation provider or have a tie to the plan’s target populations of individuals with disabilities and older adults. Comments will be accepted through Tuesday, September 9, 2014.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Who are the real heroes? Take time to nominate a local hero for a Leadership in Motion award.

I am a sports fan. I am also a father.

I am duly impressed by the athleticism and talent of our nation’s professional athletes. Many of these – for good or for bad – serve as role models, even “heroes,” to our children. While these individuals are impressive athletes, and many are also impressive human beings, they provide an unrealistic ideal for our children to strive for, and a perception that a person must be rich, famous, and “the best” at something to make an impact.

What about all of the quiet, local, unsung heroes? Those that make a positive difference in our daily lives, and the lives of generations to come, by volunteering in the community, going the “extra mile” at work, or choosing to run for office? What about those who through hard work and perseverance turn what seemed like an unachievable goal into reality? Do our children look up to them as heroes or role models? Do we?

We should.

While these people may not be rich or famous, or don’t have a line of shoes that bears their name, they are the leaders that impact our lives, and the lives of future generations. They are the ones who must make the tough – and sometimes unpopular – decisions for the greater good; not just the “good” of their agency, boss, or those that voted for him or her. That takes true courage – the makings of a hero.

The COMPASS Leadership in Motion awards program is designed to recognize and honor those who are our true local “heroes” – volunteers, professionals, and elected officials who are making a difference. In addition to the “people” awards, Leadership in Motion also recognizes businesses/nonprofits and government-sponsored projects that move us toward the future, and toward the goals established in Communities in Motion 2040, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties.

While our children likely won’t suddenly be clamoring to replace the poster of their sports hero with a poster of a mayor, planner, or engineer, or want to buy the coolest loafers because a commissioner was seen wearing them, maybe we can make a dent in how we view our heroes – our leaders – by taking the time to nominate someone, or a business/nonprofit or project, that has had a genuine impact on our valley.  

Nominations for COMPASS Leadership in Motion awards can be submitted here and will be accepted through 3:00 pm, Tuesday, September 30, 2014. Awards will be presented at the COMPASS/Valley Regional Transit holiday luncheon on Monday, December 15, 2014.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The TIP takes a turn toward maintenance

As part of the process of updating Communities in Motion, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties, the COMPASS Board of Directors chose to focus federal funding allocated through the Communities in Motion 2040 plan on maintaining the current transportation system.

The FY2015-2019 Regional Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), open for public comment through September 9, 2014, is the first TIP developed under this new direction from the COMPASS Board. This focus on maintenance affects the projects you will see – or not see – in this draft TIP. Understanding what this means, how the funding process works, and why the COMPASS Board made this decision will help you as you review and comment on the draft TIP.

First, it’s important to understand what types of projects are in the TIP, how they are funded, and which types of funding the “focus on maintenance” applies to. There are many, many types of funding…I’ve greatly over-simplified and lumped them into three categories:

1.  Federal Surface Transportation Funding (STP). This is the largest, and most flexible, “pot” of federal funding the area receives. By “flexible,” I mean it can be used for the widest variety of projects. It is this STP funding that the “focus on maintenance” applies to; the funds are split between roadway/bridge (82%), public/alternative transportation (15%), and planning/special projects (3%). Some STP funds are also taken “off the top” for specific purposes.

2.  Other federal funds. These include a myriad of federal funds, many of which are dedicated to specific types of projects, including Federal Transit Administration funds for public transportation projects, funding for safety projects, and funding for bicycle, pedestrian, and other alternative transportation projects. While the STP funds are very flexible, these funds are generally not, and are not included under the “focus on maintenance” direction. However, because STP funds are flexible, the same types of projects funded with these “other” funds can often also be funded with STP funds. So, for example, in the TIP you will see some public transportation projects funded with STP funds (therefore, they are maintenance projects) and other public transportation projects funded with Federal Transit Administration funds (they may or may not maintenance projects).

3.  Local/state funding. Very broadly, these are all funds that are not federal funds. They come from state fuel tax, local property tax, registration fees, and more. Some, but not all, of these projects are listed in the TIP, based on a variety of criteria including type, size, and location of the project.

Next, it’s important to understand how “maintenance” is defined in this context. “Maintenance” goes far beyond filling potholes. Simply put, in this context, a “maintenance” project is any project that does not expand the existing transportation system. The funds can be used to improve safety, rebuild bridges, replace or maintain buses, resurface roads, and, yes, fill potholes. In addition, certain projects that are “opportunistic” can be done within the focus on maintenance. For example, completing a missing portion of a bike lane or sidewalk could be included in a road maintenance project, even though these projects are technically adding something “new.” It is just simply the practical thing to do to be the most efficient with the funding we have.

Finally, it’s important to note that this doesn’t apply to any projects that were already in the TIP. The TIP is a five-year budget, so projects often first appear in the TIP several years before they are scheduled to begin. For example, a project scheduled for this year (2014) may have first appeared in the FY2010-2014 TIP, which was adopted by the COMPASS Board in November 2010. The focus on maintenance only applies to new projects in FY2015-2019 TIP (and future TIPs), so the shift is gradual. While most new projects in the FY2015-2019 TIP are maintenance, many projects that were already scheduled/budgeted are not. More maintenance projects will be added each year as existing capital (e.g., construction) projects are completed.
Over 90% of the new projects in the draft FY2015-2019 TIP are maintenance projects, funded with STP funds, as described above. The remaining 10% are paid for with other federal and local funding sources.

Now that we’ve discussed what this means and how it is applied, we have the bigger question of “why” – with our rapidly growing population, why did the COMPASS Board choose to focus federal funding on maintenance? Why not focus on new projects? While I do not want to attempt to speak for each Board member, three main reasons were the center of the discussion:

1.  We need to maintain what we have before building something new. Just as a person likely wouldn’t spend money to repaint his car if he couldn’t afford to change the oil, the Board felt it was important to first make sure we are keeping what we have in good working order.

2.  Preventive maintenance costs less than fixing something that is “broken.” Using the same car example, it is much less expensive to pay to change the oil on a regular basis than to forgo maintenance and have to replace a ruined engine. Spending money on preventive maintenance now costs less than having to completely rebuild or replace a section of roadway or bridge later. 

3.  “New” things must also be maintained. Just as happened with some highly publicized “free” car giveaways, winners of those free cars were not able to keep them because they couldn’t afford the costs of owning and maintaining the car. The same is true with public infrastructure. Costs don’t end when something is built or acquired…ongoing costs are just beginning. 

I hope this will help you as you review the draft TIP, and notice a decrease in construction and other capital projects and an increase in maintenance. Please take a few minutes to review and comment on the projects in the TIP – maintenance and otherwise – and tell us if you agree with the proposed projects. Click here to review and comment; comments are due no later than Tuesday, September 9, 2014.

Monday, August 11, 2014

COMPASS is asking for your comments…yes, again!

I’ve been asked why COMPASS seems to “always” be asking for public comment on something…“these” goals, “those” projects, and “this,” “that,” and “the other” plan. Why does COMPASS reach out to the public so often…and, why are we doing it again now?

The short answer is “it’s required.” Federal law requires that metropolitan planning organizations such as COMPASS solicit and consider public feedback when developing a long-range transportation plan (ours is called Communities in Motion) and a Regional Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). COMPASS also solicits public input into other projects and plans as well.

However, there is much more to it than filling a requirement. Most transportation projects are big – they cost large sums of money (your tax dollars), they are often disruptive when under construction, and they have the potential to impact the landscape of an area and the quality of life of the residents who live there for many, many years. Decisions about these large, impactful projects should never be taken lightly or without input from those who will be affected.

People are often surprised when they suddenly see orange stakes driven in the side of the road, bulldozers starting to move dirt, or a new bus route they didn’t know about. It is COMPASS’ goal to keep that surprise to a minimum by keeping people informed of what is coming, and to answer questions and consider input about projects, before they start.

We ask for public input in a variety of different stages in the planning process. For example, earlier this spring we asked for input on the draft Communities in Motion 2040 plan. That plan sets long-term goals and transportation priorities for the region. In addition to asking for input into the draft plan itself, we also asked for feedback on key decisions before they were made. Those key decisions were the “meat” of the plan; by asking for input on those throughout the planning process we were able to develop a plan with the public input, instead of developing a plan then asking “what do you think?” once it was done.

In the title of this post, I tell you we are asking for comment again. This round of comments is not on Communities in Motion; it is on projects in the TIP and related documents and on the Transportation Service Coordination Plan. While Communities in Motion is a long-range planning document, the items we’re looking for input on now focus on more discrete projects and decisions.

In the draft TIP, we’re asking for your feedback on federally funded and “regionally significant” projects scheduled for the next five years. These are based on priorities set in Communities in Motion, but move from broad priorities to actual, on-the-ground, projects. For example, when developing Communities in Motion 2040, the COMPASS Board established a priority to focus federal funding allocated through Communities in Motion on maintaining the current transportation system. You can see that reflected in the draft TIP, as nearly 90% of new projects added this year (primarily scheduled for 2019 and beyond) are maintenance projects. The remainder are safety and planning projects, as well as some transit and pedestrian projects that are funded through specific transit and bicycle/pedestrian programs. (The “focus on maintenance” direction from the COMPASS Board does not affect projects that were budgeted/scheduled in the TIP prior to this year.) 

We are also asking for your feedback on the air quality conformity demonstration for Northern Ada County for the projects in the draft TIP. The process tell us that the projects in the draft TIP “conform” to air quality plans – that is, they will not worsen air quality. The draft TIP also contains the FY2015 federal program of projects proposed for funding by Valley Regional Transit.

In addition to the draft TIP and related documents, we are also asking for your input into proposed changes to the Ada and Canyon County Transportation ServiceCoordination Plan – a document that provides guidance on how to allocate federal funds designated for public transportation to serve seniors and individuals with disabilities. Again, this moves from broad goals to improve transportation services in Communities in Motion to the specifics of “how” to do that for specific populations.

While I can certainly understand if you are feeling “comment fatigue,” I encourage you to take a few moments to review the materials provided and share your feedback. Taking a few minutes now to be aware of what’s coming and have your say certainly beats an unexpected surprise later.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It’s Done!...Or is it just the beginning?

It’s done!  After four years of hard work, countless meetings, and input from hundreds of Treasure Valley residents, Communities in Motion 2040 (CIM 2040) was adopted by the COMPASS Board of Directors on Monday, July 21, 2014.

I’d like to thank everyone who dedicated their valuable time to help make CIM 2040 a reality. Staff from COMPASS member agencies spent numerous hours sharing professional expertise, reviewing data and technical information, and providing input on plan drafts.

I’d also like to extend a special “thank you” to those members of the CIM 2040 Planning Team and CIM Leadership Team who were not COMPASS member agency staff. These team members represented elements we had not addressed in CIM before – housing, economic development, farmland, and more – and brought valuable new expertise to help COMPASS develop a plan that takes a broader look at the future of the valley.

Now what?

Our staff will take a big, deep breath, then continue to the next phase of planning. Initially, three things will happen in tandem:

1. The CIM 2040 document will be finalized and a companion summary document will be prepared. Both of these will be printed, distributed, and posted to the COMPASS website. Please let COMPASS know ( if you would like a hard copy of the full plan or the summary and we’ll make sure you get one when they are available.

2. We will continue the planning process by beginning to work on the update to CIM 2040: CIM 2045. In fact, some of the behind-the-scenes work on this has already begun. CIM 2045 is anticipated to keep the same goals and vision for growth as CIM 2040, but will update the financial forecast, growth allocations, and transportation needs based on changes that have occurred since they were developed for CIM 2040.
3. Most importantly, we will be implementing the plan. This plan was developed to be used as a guide and a decision-making tool, not simply to fulfill a requirement and then gather dust.
Implementation will take several forms. First, COMPASS and others will begin work on specific tasks that have been identified to help meet plan goals. I’ll discuss some of these specific projects in upcoming blog posts.

Second, COMPASS will be monitoring performance and providing feedback to COMPASS member agencies and other stakeholders through our performance monitoring report, development review checklist, and online dashboard. This will help us track progress to see if our collective actions are in line with the plan and moving the proverbial “needle” in the right direction. This performance information will also feed into CIM 2045. 

Finally, we will continue to work with our member agencies as they implement projects funded through the CIM implementation grants. The cities of Kuna, Melba, and Middleton received grants in FY2014; learn about their projects here and see what great things are already happening to implement CIM 2040.

Implementation of any long-range plan will never be complete; it is a process. There will always be new opportunities and new challenges as we forge our way ahead. I hope you’ll stay engaged as we move forward and our local communities continue to be “Communities in Motion.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Highway Trust Fund Bankruptcy: Look Beyond the Cries of “Wolf!”

If you follow transportation issues in the news – heck, even if you don’t – you’ve probably seen the headlines:
Federal Highway Trust Fund Going Bankrupt!
Transportation Projects Coming to a Halt!

It seems often we hear dire warnings, then nothing bad seems to happen, so after a while we ignore them, likening them to the boy who cried “wolf.”

Will Congress do something to shore up the trust fund before it goes bankrupt later this summer? I honestly don’t know.  

My concern is that if Congress does act, they will create a short-term “fix” – enough to avoid an immediate crisis, and once again make it appear we cried “wolf!” for no reason, but not enough to truly solve the problem.

What is the problem? How did we get here? The underlying issue is simple – the Highway Trust Fund was designed to be an user-pay fund, but while costs have increased, revenues have not.

Think of the trust fund as your salary. When you got your first job, your expenses were small – rent, a car payment, food, and miscellaneous expenses. As you matured, your expenses grew – you got married and had children, leading to the need for a bigger car, larger house (with all the maintenance that goes with it), increased trips to the grocery store, and more. Even your routine expenses cost more due to inflation.

But – here’s the kicker – your employer prides himself on being fiscally conservative, so he has chosen to not give raises; good work earns you a nice pat on the back instead.

Your employer boasts about his fiscal conservativeness, but you are in a quandary: more expenses + same salary = you can’t afford to pay your bills and eventually become a burden on society.

The Highway Trust Fund is in the same boat. Inflation has increased the costs of everything from labor to supplies, but the federal fuel tax hasn’t increase since 1993. What cost $100 in 1993 costs $158.85 today! In addition, people are driving less and they are driving more fuel efficient vehicles, which means less gas purchased, and less money into the trust fund.

By underfunding our transportation system, it too becomes a burden on society.  Freight haulers must go out of their way to avoid bridges with weight restrictions, leading to extra costs in fuel and time. Deliveries are late due to detours and roads in poor repair, leading to less efficient commerce. Workers are stuck in traffic or can’t catch a bus, due to lack of ability to keep up with demand.

Most proposals I have seen to shore up the Highway Trust Fund are short-term “fixes,” but do not address the underlying problem. We need a long-term solution by returning to a true “user pay” system:

1. Raise the fuel tax.

2. Index the fuel tax to inflation, so we aren’t having this argument in the future – Congress won’t have the unpleasant task of raising taxes; the taxes will raise themselves.

3. Implement a tax on electric, hybrid, and other vehicles that are less reliant on gas so that they pay an amount equivalent to their use of the roads.

We need to stop boasting about being fiscally conservative and instead boast about being fiscally sound. Our future depends on it. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Communities in Motion: Why Do You Care? Part XI

The process of developing Communities in Motion 2040 is drawing to a close. We collected public comments on the draft plan from March 3 – April 27, and received 114 comments during that time.

Thank you to everyone who submitted comments, participated in a discussion group, attended an in-person or virtual open house, or just took the time to look at the materials and become familiar with what the plan is all about. If you’d like to read the comments we received, visit

This is my eleventh, and second-to-the-last, installment in my series of blogs about why people care, or should care, about long-range transportation planning in general and Communities in Motion in particular. I’ll publish my final installment the first week of October. At that point, Communities in Motion 2040 will have been adopted and we’ll be moving into the implementation phase of the plan. We’ll also already be looking forward to the next update to the plan, Communities in Motion 2045.

But, before we get to that, I present to you the latest list of why people should care about Communities in Motion 2040, as submitted by you: 
  • It’s about down-stream effects – this is our shot at setting aside/preserving corridors for future.
  • People should be interested in future needs and use of scarce resources, whether it’s transportation, housing, health etc.
  • We should care about our transportation options as/when we get older.
  • If we can’t afford to do it today, how will we be able to afford to do it tomorrow? We have to find a way to fund our transportation infrastructure!
  • Because sitting in traffic sucks!
  • Transportation makes the world go round…
  • Efficient transportation is GREENER!

This is your last chance to share why you think Communities in Motion 2040 is important and why people should get involved ― why you care. To add your thoughts to the conversation, email and we’ll post your ideas here. Watch for the last installment of the list in October!

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.