"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

A Boise streetcar


Early Boise streetcar

A century ago, most cities of much size had streetcars, electric rail systems running through the populated areas. Boise had an extensive system that run through most of what then was town (which was a lot smaller than it is now) and out west into the farm country, where many families would go for a daytrip ride on the rail.

There are far fewer of these now, most wiped out by the mass of cars and buses. San Francisco has a famous system, of course; Portland has a neat downtown-area streetcar system that meshes well with the rest of the MAX/Tri-met system; and Seattle has its new unfortunately-acronymed South Lake Union Trolley.

And Boise just might get a small-scaled version, running east and west of and through downtown. Mayor Dave Bieter has been pushing it hard, Senator Mike Crapo has been working on federal funding (which would have to amount to $40 million)

It has become a big subject of controversy in the city’s current council races – and the tenor of it suggests where the public attitudes are leaning. The streetcar critics (the more conservative candidates) are direct and blunt in their blasts – open-seat candidate Dave Litster calls it a “trolley folly.” His opponent T.J. Thomson (who has Bieter’s endorsement and, owing in large part to a much more extensive campaign, seems likely to win) hasn’t exactly been taking the pro-streetcar approach. While not ruling it out, he declares himself neutral and a backer of a public vote on the matter. That’s Bieter’s supporter.

How might such a vote go? You may get a clue from a just-out Idaho Statesman poll showing 50.3% in opposition, 36.7% in favor and the rest undecided. Bieter maintained that many of those opposed haven’t seen the financials and economic estimates in support of the streetcars, and that may be true. But that doesn’t mean the numbers would move greatly even if they did.

On my last visit to Boise I spoke with a number of people about the streetcar, mainly people predisposed to public transport, a number of them big fans of the Portland system. There was little enthusiasm in this group (less than I’d expected) for the streetcar. The reasons varied, but most commonly came to this: The streetcar could do only limited good for downtown transit, would eat up valuable real estate, and gobble big money that could otherwise go toward beefing up a bus system in desperate need of more routes and greater frequency. There was also a feeling that it would place too much emphasis on downtown and not enough on the rest of the city, and thereby split attitudes (maybe leading to divisiveness) about public transportation generally. And public transportation has always had a rough patch in Idaho.

So if you find fewer candidates in Boise supporting the streetcar Idaho than you do throwing rocks at it, there may be reasons. And those reasons might be less clearly split philosophically than you might think.

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  1. Laurynda said:

    Very good analysis of the trolley issue. I wish we could get Boise and the congressional representation to look at funding light rail on the corridor between Boise and Caldwell. That would also serve Meridian and Nampa. The entire problem seems to rooted in the fact that once we got people to Boise, there is not an efficient bus system to get them to their workplaces. The interstate is jammed every morning and afternoon. Most cars have only the driver in them. I imagine it will take another huge hike in gas prices before Idahoans will even consider public transportation as a vitally important issue.

    October 31, 2009
  2. slfisher said:

    Ironically, the news the other day showed Litster promoting his campaign, and his objection to the streetcar….using a trolley riding around Boise.

    November 3, 2009

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