City Government

Transit Sounds Good, Costs Too Much

By Ronald M. Harriman

Your legislators will be asked this year to allow a local option tax for
transit in the Treasure Valley. The transit plan proposed by the local Idaho transit folks is $1.2 Billion dollars over the next 20 years, probably funded with sales taxes.
It SOUNDS good…”it will clean the air and take cars off the road.” Alas, it is a Pied Piper Scheme. The politicos are blowing a Piccolo to lead you down a path of higher taxes and consequently higher cost of living, spending money that will neither clean the air nor reduce traffic on the roads.
Statistical data available from the 2000 U. S. Census, the U. S. DOT and the
budgets of every transit system in the U. S. tell a different story. The
statistical data from the Urban Transport Fact Book, 1990-2000 has a range
of ridership on transit systems from population densities similar to the
Treasure Valley– about 400,000 to 1 million, with riderships of .86% to 5.71%. of the total commuters traveling daily.
The data listed below is from “The Urban Transit Fact Book” and is the reported percentage of the daily commuters using public transit in these specific areas. The data is admittedly dated, but the ridership percentage rates are still estimated to be similar.
City Year % of Riders
Atlanta 2000 3.65%
Denver 2000 4.34%
Phoenix 2000 2.02%
Portland 2000 5.71%
K. City 2000 1.28%
Salt Lake 2000 2.98%
Sacramento 2000 2.72%
Average commuter usage is only 3.24%
A report on the U. S. DOT site states that transit systems are a fiscal wash. They
do not clean the air nor do they save fuel.
The Phoenix area was selected as a representative sample because it has inversion
characteristics similar to the Treasure Valley. An EPA survey identified the source
of the dangerous air particle PM 2.5 coming from vehicles at 12.54% of the
total air particle contamination for Phoenix. Utilizing the above determined
average value at 3.24% of daily commuters I applied that to the contribution
of vehicles from the Phoenix EPA study to air pollution to arrive at a
factor of 2.6%. (Simple division 3.24/12.54)
Statistically, if the proposed Transit System were in place today and
3.2% of the people were riding the system, we could anticipate air quality would now only be 97.4% as bad as it was before we spent the $1.2 BILLION to
build the Transit System which will not reduce commute times!
Statistical data developed by Texas A&M for 2003 Shows that every city’s Transit System has shown an increase or broken even in commute time.  None have shown a decline in commute time.
The proposal to support the transit is a sales tax of 1/4-1/2%.  Doesn’t sound bad?  Look at the budgets of the operating systems throughout the U. S.  The following data is directly from the budgets of for those systems…all operating in the red.

City                  (Operating loss)                        Year                 Source
Salt Lake          ($162,304,425.00)                   2006                sales tax
Portland           ($216,000,000.00)                   2004                payroll tax
Denver             ($319,468,000.00)                   2006                sales tax

If the Treasure Valley system goes into place we can expect to pay the $1.2 billion over 20 years while we pay a minimum of $130 million per year ADDITIONAL to operate the system.  As you can see I have made a very conservative estimate of the cost in dollars.   The $130 million will come from your pockets each year and is nearly the entire Boise City for ALL cityservices.

Mr. Harriman describes himself as a community and political activist living in Nampa.

The GUARDIAN welcomes well researched postings from all points of view.

Comments & Discussion

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. If a transit solution is going to cost me money, I like testing an expanded bus system. Test the waters before jumping into 120 degree water.

    The best way to cut commuter traffic on I-84 would be an employment solution. The next best way to reduce long distance commuter traffic (10 plus miles) is to require vehicle operating cost to figured into mortgage applications.

    Oct 9, 2007, 10:50 pm

    Very good data and all true. The mayors comments that “people will not ride buses but they will ride trains” is just plain silly. Even IF you have a train system you have to have a BUS SYSTEM to get them from the train stop to the work place.

    If the city turns the Depot into a transit station then you still have to unload the people there and put them ON A BUS to get them downtown.

    So we in up getting TAXED for BOTH a train AND A BUS SYSTEM!!

    Please do not let the legislature allow the locals to option tax us to death!

    Oct 9, 2007, 10:50 pm

    Very good data and all true. The mayors comments that “people will not ride buses but they will ride trains” is just plain silly. Even IF you have a train system you have to have a BUS SYSTEM to get them from the train stop to the work place.

    If the city turns the Depot into a transit station then you still have to unload the people there and put them ON A BUS to get them downtown.

    So we in up getting TAXED for BOTH a train AND A BUS SYSTEM!!

    Please do not let the legislature allow the locals to option tax us to death!

  4. shealyisnottheantichrist
    Oct 9, 2007, 11:08 pm

    We need a toll system to charge all the Canyon Co. SUV drivers who commute to Boise every day. Let’s face it. They are not going to ride buses or a light rail system. Let’s not waste our money. Let’s waste theirs.

  5. Mass transit is another name for paying for somehting that most people will not use. If you want to get cars off the streets in this valley two things need to happen:
    1. Make the propety tax levy rate for business equal in all parts of the valley. 40% of people living in Canyon County commute to work in Ada County. Why…because the property taxes are cheaper in Ada County by around a third less.

    2. Make I-84 a toll road between Caldwell and Micron in Boise. Why should everyone pay for more lanes that will only accomodate more cars stuck in traffic. $5 bucks each way would give pause to using this corridor with one person in the vehicle. The tolls pay for the road improvements for the people that use the corridor.

  6. I’m going to play devil’s advocate as always. Mr. Harriman leaves out the comparison to taxes we already pay to support the highway/single occupant auto industrial complex.

    Rail transit would be an easier pill to swallow if it could be demonstrated an equal amount would be saved by building less roads. I don’t think this has ever been demonstrated though.

    The toll road idea is a good one, I’ve always been a fan of pay-as-you-drive. Why stop at tolling for I-84, with GPS based chips in every license plate, we could have a pay-per-mile system that covers all the roads in the valley or even the state.

    Of course the devil is in the details, out-of-state drivers would get a free ride with respect to that system.

    The fact of the matter is, the local demographic it is more akin to the LA, Atlanta, Houston model of development than is to the New York and euro-cities model.

  7. Once the Garvee Highway from Caldwell to Boise is completed, one incoming lane should be HOV-only (high-occupant vehicle) in the morning (say 6:30am to 9:30am), and one outgoing lane in the afternoon (3:30pm to 6:30pm). At least those who choose the suburbia/commute lifestyle should have an incentive to pool up.

  8. Hasn’t Wendell Cox of the website that you reference for this index admitted that he is pro-urban sprawl? I think I read an online debate between him and someone else where he proclaimed that sprawl is the “American Dream” and not smart growth or transit. At any rate I would have reservations about information from this website. Not saying it isn’t factual, just that there is an obvious agenda against transit and smart growth. I wonder if Cox and his organization supported all the measures and propositions across the country to neuter planning and zoning regulations (like Prop 2 here)?

  9. Mike Murphy, Bull Moose Tenor
    Oct 10, 2007, 10:57 am

    “There are 3 kinds of lies… Lies. Damned lies. And Statistics.” -Mark Twain

    I am fortunate enough to have lived, worked and played (hard) in some of the Great Cities of America and the World.

    Part of what allowed them to become great was, and is, their Mass Transit Systems.

    Perhaps we could do away with the B.S. Tax Loophole that allows Multi-Level Marketers, Cell Phone Rep’s and Dentists (Everyone but the Farmers and Tradesman it was SUPPOSED to help) to Write-Off Hummers and Suburbans (A $85,000 Hummer, after deductions costs $19,000. That’s less than a Subaru!), AND the fuel they guzzle.

    That ALONE would lessen the strain on infrastructure and relieve congestion and pollution.

  10. I think the biggest obstacle to funding mass transit is getting the public to believe it is money well spent. If great results were obtained then the public would probably embrace mass transit. Consider this:

    Our transit system has a fare recovery rate of about 15%. This means that ridership fees by the users of the system account for 15% of the cost to provide the service. The national average fare recovery rate is 30%. This can be due to artifically low rider fares, low ridership numbers, or both.

    I think it would be a mistake to approve any investment into mass transit with an acompanying metric goal for VRT to obtain. Examples:

    Public will invest 15% more dollars into the VRT system, and in two years VRT needs to have ridership 15% higher for this investment to continue. Plus

    Public will invest 10% more dollars into VRT and in two years VRT is to have their far box recovery at the national average of 30% for the investment to continue.

    I think it is unfair to expect VRT to improve in these areas without an investment from the public, but it is also unfair for the public to make an investment without the requirement for improvement. Paying more for the status quo is a bad idea.

    I would encourage reluctant legislators to support investing in public transit, but temper their sceptisim by requiring specific and measurable improvements and have automatic removal of funding in the bill if metric goals are not met. This places the responsibility on management of VRT to perform, and most studies indicate that good or poor management makes the difference between sucsess or failure.

  11. Its hard to break up American’s love affair with the independence associated with their cars. This is expecially true in the west. In struggling to come to grips with our rapidly expanding population it struck me that the electric car had huge promise to help alleviate much of the air pollution caused by automobiles. But despite its success before and after being placed in the stream of commerce the program was killed, with a vengence. The film shows you the array of powers we’re up against. Definitely worth watching.

  12. Guardian, I would like some clarification. Do you oppose local option taxation in general, or oppose the current public transit proposal, which would be funded with LOT?

    I can’t believe you would oppose LOT as a policy. You’re always calling for a public vote before a large capital expenditure and here’s a proposal to give that voting opportunity to people.

    I support local option taxation and the current transit proposal and as a citizen, I would like the chance to vote on it.

    I agree with the apt statement “Rail costs more than the entire budget of God.” We don’t have the development density to support rail, but we could have a great busway system.

    I propose tearing out the existing railroad tracks all over the valley and paving them over for a busway, to be used only by busses, carpool vans and emergency vehicles. With a some intersection tweaking, the current crossing arms could come down and give the busses priority. Yet busses would be free to enter and leave the busway and travel on streets. Viola – the priority of trains with the flexibility and low cost of busses.

    EDITOR NOTE–Wonk, I absolutely favor local option taxes.

    I fear giving that tax authority to a bunch of local politicos who all have different agendas. The recent post by Ron Harriman certainly raises questions about the benefits of transit.

    If you are a regular reader you will remember the GUARDIAN presented a pretty simple plan for an “above ground subway” using buses. No politicos responded to that suggestion.

    We oppose trying to “design society” by supporting CCDC and various downtown efforts. Paris has the
    “periphery” where they build new buildings, leaving the old city relatively intact. We see similar in Houston and some other big cities in the USA. Your bus experiment is worth a look.

  13. sam the sham
    Oct 10, 2007, 1:00 pm

    Cynic – love your comment!!!! Why not just add the expenses onto the cost of your licence plates….by the value of your car.

    In some cities people walk, ride their bikes and/or drive and park to ride the bus/train. For those who drive their car….parking will be needed. Where on the Depot grounds is there enough parking space?
    oh….they never thought of that……? Or are they planning yet another huge home for parked cars (when the city cannot park people who have no homes).

    Don’t get me wrong, I am all for mass transit provided that it is well thought out and well planned. Is this idea both of those or just another way to spend our tax money?

  14. Since I-84 is a federal highway I don’t believe you could charge any tolls without purchasing it from the feds. More likely is a southern route for the interstate so that all local traffic on the interstate is LOCAL.
    Heck, I don’t know why everyone is worrying about this, in a few years we’ll all be running around in flying cars powered by a Mr. Fusion anyway.

  15. Stupid Transit Idea
    Oct 10, 2007, 5:37 pm

    The statistics are interesting, but unnecessary. The simple fact that they want to institute a tax to make it happen means it is failure in all its facets.

    If the project were truly viable, a private firm would pay the various right of way holders for the opportunity to build it on their own dime.

    The proposed light rail system is just more corporate welfare, Boise style.

  16. Taking public transit can cut your individual “carbon footprint” in half. Now just getting people to use it. But how can they use it if an effective public transit system is not in place? We need to implement an effective BRT program in the valley first and provide the foundation for a light rail system so that when it is practical to do so, which it eventually will be, we can seamlessly implement it.

  17. “The simple fact that they want to institute a tax to make it happen means it is failure in all its facets. If the project were truly viable, a private firm would pay the various right of way holders for the opportunity to build it on their own dime. The proposed light rail system is just more corporate welfare, Boise style.”

    The exact same things could be said of the existing auto-oriented road system.

    Our society has agreed that some things – like transportation, education, national defense, energy – are so key to our civilization that they require government ownership or government-sanctioned monopoly at the federal, state or local level. I sense you would support government welfare as long as it meant they would keep adding lanes for cars.

  18. How about paying people to commute on bicycles? I think $1.00/day would be about right. It would take a lot of cars off the road for local commuters and offset the carbon footprint for those who insist on driving. Why not reward people for doing the right thing instead of always subsidizing the profits of the polluting oil and car corporations.

    The Canyon County commute to Boise might be solved by designing light rail vans that can also drive on the streets. They could use the new hybrid electric/deisel engines. I see pickup trucks tooling down the tracks all the time for maintenence crews. The Boise Train Depot would be used again. The vans, could work much like the Super Shuttles used in major Western cities. This would eliminate the need for urban tracks. I’m sure the engineering department at Uof I could create a protoype demonstration rail van.

  19. Don't Worry, Be Happy
    Oct 11, 2007, 12:43 pm

    They should run light rail from the Pit to the site of the proposed expansion of the convention center. They could call it the Sisyphus Express. Together, they would form a triad of civic blundering.

  20. Don't Worry, Be Happy
    Oct 11, 2007, 12:43 pm

    They should run light rail from the Pit to the site of the proposed expansion of the convention center. They could call it the Sisyphus Express. Together, they would form a triad of civic blundering.

  21. Mike Murphy, Bull Moose Tenor
    Oct 11, 2007, 1:09 pm

    Good Lord! Must we continuously reinvent the wheel?

    Isn’t it enough that the “problem” (or as I like to call them: Challenge) has been long solved by other communities.

    And once again, while I begrudge no one their success, I do get more than a wee bit perturbed at subsidizing (through a Tax Loophole) the “Fake-it-til-you-make-it” types and their infrastructure straining, planet polluting penis extensions (aka SUVs).

    Too bad Dr. Freud isn’t alive today!

  22. curious george
    Oct 11, 2007, 5:07 pm

    Here’s a bit more well researched document on Bus Rapid Transit.

    And for an opposing view, here’s Wendell Cox’ info

    I’m not saying that the Federal government is a wellspring of objectivity, but Cox certainly isn’t. He’s not much more than a hired gun used by special interest groups who have a deep-seated interest in keeping things just the way they are.

    Mr. Cox’ lucrative speaking engagements are underwritten by an organization named the Heartland Institute.

    The institute holds a number of positions on the environment. Air Pollution doesn’t actually exist, the global warming threat is overblown, and any purported contamination of the environment by toxic chemicals is overstated (specifically: asbestos, lead, dioxin, mercury, pesticides, PCB’s, chlorine, and endocrine disrupters).

  23. TAX hit it on the head. It seems that Team Dave is another Brent Coles when it comes to trains. They must not have had one when they were boys so they need one now and think it will be their “legacy”. Not sure why creating a BILLION dollar tax burden is a good legacy.

    To tax us to the tune of over a BILLION dollars is not something that we can handle especailly since the current mayor likes to “hide” excess tax revenue now rather then lowering our taxes.

    I am just sick and tired of politians that want to tax us out of our homes!

  24. For MASS transit to work and work well you need MASSES of people. Boise doesn’t have, nor will it have in the future, MASSES of people. For a public transportation system to work well you need a system that is responsive to its target markets and managed well. Build it well and riders will come. VRT has yet to define a target market for itself and/or show it is capable of managing itself well.

    Wendell Cox and his organization may not be a wellspring of objectivity, but then the same can be said for the Center for Transportation Excellence ( and LightRailNow ( Both these organizations have some very heavy public transportation hitters backing them. Heavy hitters who stand to directly benefit from various public transportation projects. Check out the supporters of the Regional Coalition here in Boise. Some more heavy hitters in the public transit arena.

    The facts for Boise are: it doesn’t have the population density now or, according to COMPASS transportation planners, in the future to support a rail system – heavy or light; bus ridership in Boise is basically stagnant even though the population continues to grow; and according to Federal Transit Administration documents, VRT recovers less than 10% of the cost of the Boise operation through fares (Pocatello gets 12%).

    JJ is right. Any legislation that is passed needs to have specific and measurable performance metrics with the automatic removal of funding if those metrics are not met.

    The Guardian had it right with his proposed surface subway bus system back in March. Go Guardian!

  25. After reading the comments posted some further clarification seems to be in line. I personally believe that we should have a good reliable bus system, not light rail.

    Commuter use of light rail is less than 1% with .3 tenth in SLC. .25 in Denver and .22 in San Diego. As far as a break even point for transit, it will never happen except in high densities like Tokyo. The highly touted SLC transit actually has a public cost of $7.80 per passenger after they pay their fare, and those fares only cover 13% of the cost.

    A highly efficient bus system would cost the Public about $.85 per passenger mile. Having reviewed the ACHD’s budgets and passenger miles 3 years ago I came to the conclusion that the cost of Commuter vans was around $.20 per mile, but that the commuter was only paying $.05 per mile. The purpose of this article was to correct the data being pushed onto the public to support a system that would make a lot of money for everyone except the citizens and they would be the ones paying for this party. I have no objection to a local option tax.

    I do oppose a bill that would take the sovereignty away from Counties so that their citizens will not have the right to accept or reject the local option tax.

  26. The real story on VRT

    Two high ranking direct reports of Kelli Fairless have left VRT management for similar jobs elsewhere. Did they leave for a promotion? No, there are problems within VRT and these managers saw it comming. One who left was the deputy director in charge of finance.

    VRT at odds with Union, blame union for poor maintenance causing bus fires this year.

    Some VRT board members proposed the mission statement of the bus program to change so the new mission statement would be to promote economic development. Effort was defeated but shows how some of these elected leaders think it is all about

    VRT claims they didn’t see it comming, but it is poor management, ADA county grew enough to make VRT ineligible for federal grants for operational dollars. VRT remains a grant reciever for fixed costs, but not operational dollars for ADA
    county. This was a huge budget cut for VRT, one they claim they did not see comming.

    If VRT spent money on operations instead of pie in the sky long range planning, services might be adequate enough for ridership growth.

    VRT insists their only challenge is funding, and they look toward tax revenues. VRT refuses to think they could improve current services with current resources. While VRT would not admit to such, their sole emphasis and reliance upon legislative action shows it.

  27. Jim Tibbs released his transportation proposal this afternoon. In it he stresses the need for a viable bus transit system as the MAIN focus on our efforts to solve the problem. The Guardian’s idea of a surface subway system did not fall on deaf ears.

    Currently, we are exploring the use of smaller hybrid/electric “movers” to operate with extended hours and regular stops throughout the arterial corridor.

    In addition, Tibbs has called for free parking in any city-involved parking structure with 3, or more, commuters.That alone, is the positive short term attempt to lessen the impact of rush hour traffic. Coupled with an honest effort to mitigate with employers to examine the possibilities of “flex-time” operating hours and calling for any additional highway construction to provide for HOV lanes, will go a long way to improve the lack of anything being done in years.

    The entire policy statement can be seen on the Jim Tibbs for mayor website. (Yep! Proudly for Tibbs)

  28. Yossarian_22
    Oct 14, 2007, 10:24 am

    The above comments are all very interesting. Most of them that reject rail and buses demonstrate a total disregard for the overall picture where true costs are concerned.

    When ALL externalities (health, stress, environmental impacts, economic distortions, energy consumption costs, military excursions in the Middle East..etc) are accounted for, transit gets very cheap. The big problem for the Treasure Valley is that it is a textbook case of stupid, self serving sprawl, that locates too many people in a low density landscape. The assertion made above that only great “masses” of people will justify a transit system is wrong. We have the masses, they are just spead too thinly across the valley.

    There are cities in the world like Quito, Ecuador that locate building density in a way that transit can accomodate. We are the exact opposite of that efficiency. I agree that we should develop a functioning bus system first, before moving on to a rail component, and the two should complement each other. Where we really need a commuter rail is between Caldwell and Boise. If that were served by a supporting bus/park-n-ride infrastructure, it would create an option that could compete with the car. It’s still a big challenge though, given the ludicrous layout of the valley structure.

    Now, I’m sure many of the readers doubt my viewpoint, but the real undiscussed matter before is not mere traffic congestion and dirty air. In fact, those things will actually improve when the real problem begins. The Peak Oil issue is the device that will break the SUV’s hold on society. However, you still need to be able to get around.

    You can walk, ride a bike (like I do), take a bus (if it hasn’t been stripped away by the car lovers), or take a train (if the person above who proposed ripping out all current rails hasn’t gotten their way). BTW, we will need any and all current rail to receive goods that we’ll still need from long distances because it’s a far cry more efficient than semi-trucks.

    If you think Peak Oil is a goofy theory…see this story-,,2181830,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=environment

    Any talk of preventing alternatives to a functioning public transit system very short sighted and bone-headed. Every day I check the price of oil. It closed Friday at $83.69 a barrel. Last month it was about $79.00 a barrel. They can’t find any more big deposits of the cheap stuff. They have been supplementing with expensive tar sand oil. You can’t grow the economy without cheap oil and expect things to remain stable.

    Come on people…WAKE UP!!!

  29. The problem with trying to compare the “true” costs of transit with the “true” costs of auto transportation is that we already have a lot of sunk costs in the automobile. The roads (such as they are) are already in place, people have made a huge investment in their private autos. The latter can be undone fairly quickly however, the former cannot.

    To try and tax ourselves for this, really pie in the sky transit dream, would be very difficult if the “true” tax costs were explained to the voters. One could do the old bait and switch a la the community college, but that may have used up the one con already.

    The best thing is to really ramp up the bus system. I don’t begin to know the answers there other than it cannot just be a Boise funded system. I really don’t know what it will take to get the public riding the busses. So far $3/gallon hasn’t moved people into the system. It might take $5/gallon but even that is no guarantee.

  30. The only train systems that work are ones that: have stations all over the place like New York, or ones that take people over long distances to a city that has a system with a ton of stations, like New Jersey to New York. People from NJ take the light rail into Hoboken, and then subways to NYC because they will end up only walking a few blocks when they get off the train. A train that has limited stations and leaves passengers to figure out how they are going to make it the next mile is no good. If a light rail could come into Boise from Caldwell, and end at a bus transfer point, with buses going all over Boise, that could work. Otherwise, it is a waste and you will convince nobody to abandon a car. The same can be said of a bus system. People aren’t moved by “helping ease congestion.” They are moved by the system making it easier for them.

    And please, no GPS on my license plate. Thank you very much. Believe me, go live in LA for a month and come back and tell me that Boise has a traffic problem.

  31. Meridian Mike
    Oct 16, 2007, 10:12 am

    Thanks Harriman for an analysis that produces so many right on comments. Intersections with 6000 cars per hour and no alternative are dumb. Hopefully we don’t have to get as dumb as California for us to change it.

    We should put some tax dollars into something besides the misspent millions that we put into road widening. OPU’s comment 24 says it all about why we don’t. We voted in 1994 to give VRT authority for buses outside of Boise, and what is it now? The new Nampa route? I seriously wanted to take a bus this morning. It would have been a mile and half hike 30 minutes too early, and I live right off a main Boise road.

    What kind of beast is VRT? It acts like government but its website is .org. A non profit doesn’t have to rely on tax dollars. Do they have any extra buses right now that they could actually put to use, if they had ridership that would pay for the route? You’d think they would monitor a blog site like this and would seek a few alternatives rather than sticking with the same old losing game plan. Why not try a Plan B rather than twiddling their thumbs for the next couple years when they can throw some tax dollars at the problem? VRT, repeat after me. It’s about ridership and not about funding.

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