City Government

Transit Experts Vindicate GUARDIAN

For years the GUARDIAN has been poking fun at Team Dave. Senator Senior Crappo, and all the rest of those who favor trains.

Each time we poked holes in their ill advised dreams, survey, and yes–SCAMS, we pointed out the need for a decent bus system before anything else can even be considered. Here is a GUARDIAN IDEA for transit ignored by the politicos, but advocated by a national “expert.” For more, click on the transportation list at the right column for everything we have offered over the years on the subject.

Now the DAILY PAPER features a report from consultants and behold!…they come to the same conclusions as the GUARDIAN and many of our readers. Steel rails and trains are ungodly expensive and the retrofit is nearly insurmountable–especially given the area and population density we have.

GUARDIAN reader and fellow blogger Martin Johncox posted today on the subject at his IDAHO WONK site. Even he agrees with us on the futility of rail commutes in the valley. He offers an alternative solution using buses, but the cost of infrastructure is much higher than just running a proper bus line.

Comments & Discussion

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  1. Dave, just to be clear, I think that most of the comments from the consultants were specifically directed at the concept of commuter rail using existing tracks and not light rail. I’m not saying that is viable yet either, but I believe they were speaking to a very specific issue.

  2. Trains Be Dumb
    May 15, 2009, 11:13 am

    It is important to remember that the negative comments came from groups that would stand to benefit if the thing were built!


    And, some of my research indicates that the $400 million number the Statesman mentioned may be low by more than half. The consultants were afraid they would not be believed if they said it would cost more than a $billion.

  3. Light and commuter rail systems are complete taxpayer boondoggles.

    Commuter/light rail is simply not feasible in Idaho because of the sprawl and low population density vs. cost.

    This is not even mentioning that we do not have the supporting transit infrastructure such as a *real* bus system.

    Go research the TRAX system in SLC if you think rail is a good thing. The taxes required to keep that system running are phenomenal and their ridership has been on the decline despite the fact they keep expanding the system.

  4. That is true…they keep speaking of crossings and existing track.

  5. Portland, Oregon has the bus transit deal figured out. Why not just copy the good stuff they have and apply it to Boise.

    One problem is parking is still too cheap in downtown Boise. The other is the current bus system sucks.

    It was amazing to see how many people in downtown Portland have monthly bus passes and use the bus to get to and from work.

    Boise transit people need to get into the real world and get a bus system that acutally will work for commuters before they give any thought to fixed rail systems.

  6. Portland’s light rail is a success mostly in the minds of visitors and local bureuacrats.

    Research the actual consequences. Maybe there is hope for Boise to NOT follow Portland.

  7. Don’t think for a second that Team Dave won’t dismiss the “experts” in the same way they have dismissed the Guardian for many years!
    I am convinced that this bunch in city hall isn’t smart enough to even read the report.
    And Jon? they addressed the question of light rail when they spoke of a high level of conflict between existing freight traffic and light rail. Don’t forget as well,that the tracks won’t support ANY type of traffic that would run over 30mph. That alone would leave out light rail as an option.

  8. Why could the west afford a rail system a hundred years ago and can’t now? This just doesn’t make any sense to me.

    EDITOR NOTE–TJ, original railroad was built by the USA government across free land with no crossings and aimed at “opening up” the west. Alternate sections sold immigrants created a “need” for the service. Blacksmiths used to make a profit too!

  9. Do not forget that the rest of the world manages to make rail work and that rail is a much more pleasant way to travel than flying.

  10. I’m glad they got some facts on this pipe dream. However, lets have a similar look at the bus system. This pig is bloated and in need of a slaughter. The Guardian and other minions can talk it up but the bus costs taxpayers money. Boise needs to save money and wait for a real mass transit option to come available. Oh thats right lets spend the Obama money before its worthless.

  11. Yes a strong bus system is a necessity. But as someone pointed out in another conversation, buses are subject to lights, traffic and all the other ills of motor vehicles on busy streets. Street cars eliminate some of this. Electric buses offer a better ride but still are prisoners of traffic. I sometimes take a bus in New York but I much prefer the subway for getting from point A to point B. (AndI am perfectly happy not to drive.) Same was true for the time I spent in Washington, D.C. — we used the bus for places the subway didn’t go.

    I grew up riding buses. It was a second class transportation mode then and it still is — useful, appreciated and utilized when it is properly run. But trains are just a better way to go.

  12. Anne, everything will be a prisoner of traffic, including cars. The advantage of trains is that they have a separated, priority route: Only trains travel on tracks and crossing arms come down at intersections to stop cars so trains can go on. Trains work only where destinations are within walking distance of the station and there are very few such places in Boise. The Curb Guided Busway exploits the priority route advantages of trains, but has the flexibility of being able to go on city streets, which trains cannot do. We have the ROW and much of the infrastructure in place to start a simple busway system and see if we want to invest more in it. As G mentions, I discuss this on my blog at

  13. Tom Anderson
    May 16, 2009, 11:28 am

    Here is a bit on the future of trains from the brilliant John Michael Greer.

    …A point made in passing in that post was that railroads, while they are much more efficient than automobile or air transport, still require relatively large amounts of concentrated energy, and so may become uneconomical for many uses at a certain point well down the curve of fossil fuel depletion. One of my readers took rather heated exception to this comment. Only America’s backwards railroads, he pointed out indignantly, relied on fossil fuel; since European and Japanese railways used electricity, they would be unaffected by fossil fuel depletion and could keep rolling along into the far future.

    This kind of logic is common enough these days that it’s probably necessary to point out the flaws in it. Electricity isn’t an energy source; it has to be generated, using some other energy source to do so. The electricity that powers the European and Japanese rail systems is mostly generated by plants that burn coal, with significant help from nuclear reactors and a rather smaller assist from hydroelectric plants. Of these, only the hydroelectric plants are a renewable energy source; the others are poised just as firmly on the downslope of depletion as the diesel oil that runs American locomotives.

    Coal is turning out to be much less abundant than the cozy estimates of a few decades ago made it sound, and of course there’s the far from minor impact of coal burning on an already unstable global climate. Fissionable uranium is well down its own depletion curve, and it’s worth noting that the enthusiastic claims sometimes made for breeder reactors, the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel, and other alternatives to conventional fission plants are very rarely to be heard from people who have professional training in the fields concerned. Thus my reader was quite simply wrong; the European and Japanese rail systems that so excited his admiration are just as dependent on nonrenewable fuels as the American system, and are also just as vulnerable to the economic implications of supply and demand as energy supplies dwindle.

    Now of course there are other reasons why railroads may be kept in service, at least for certain uses, long after they become economic liabilities. Many of the world’s larger nations – the United States and Russia among them – grew to their present size only after rail transport made it possible to exert political and economic power on a continental scale, and future governments may well keep long-distance rail links going as a matter of national survival. That likelihood, though, does nothing to counter the point central to last week’s post: that in a world with much less energy, older and more energy-efficient transport methods such as canal boats may turn out to be much more economically viable than their more recent and more extravagant replacements, and those cities and regions well positioned to take advantage of waterborne transport may therefore thrive in the 21st century as they did in the 19th.

  14. Listen to the experts Anne!
    Are they more fun? You bet! It would also be great if each of us received a check for $200,000.00 a year! We can’t afford either one!

  15. Anne – I am sure you will be the first to committ 50% of your paycheck to fund a train that the experts agree is a boondoggle.

  16. I still expect that the city council and the mayor will continue to pursue the train to nowhere. And look forward to taxing us for it.

    Maybe Bob McQuade can raise our property assesments and write another article about telling us that even though our property values have dropped 30% that we will see our assesments rise….what a joke. Every person in Ada county should plan to appeal their assesments this year – it is time this stupid stuff stops.

  17. Trains Be Dumb
    May 18, 2009, 7:02 am

    Trains are an excellent form of mass transportation.

    They transport huge masses of money from taxpayers to construction companies and train manufacturers.

    As for moving people, not so good.

  18. The Watcher
    May 18, 2009, 8:01 am

    I wasn’t able to attend the ULI Conference so I don’t know if the Statesman got it right, judging by what I read in the “comments” section of the daily paper they didn’t entirely get it accurate…no big surprise. Whether or not commuter rail or bus rapid transit is feasible is a land use question, not the type of trains or buses. If the land use is right, the service will be efficient and will be about as subsidized as any other gov’t program…airlines, roads, etc.

    EVERYBODY gets obsessed about vehicles, the Mayor, the Statesman and the Boise Guardian are ALL guilty of this. Until cities and counties in the Treasure Valley can get a handle on their land use, stop consuming all our precious ag land that we are SO proud of with low density housing there will never be any efficient transit of any kind.

    Now I will obsess about vehicles for a very short bit…light rail will NEVER pencil out here, it is too expensive to electrify a corridor. I don’t know that anybody has seriously suggested it. By serious I mean a gov’t agency having studied it and come out with a recommendation by an elected body, suggesting that light rail is a viable option. It is falsely thrown out by many (including in this forum) because the costs are so incredibly high and it paints an extreme picture. Rail service can be had for much cheaper. (say what you will about the gov’t but they represent us…if you think they are goofy and clueless better go find a mirror…)

    Mark Warner is a great guy but his expertise is in building locomotives, planning for transit service is an ENTIRELY different thing. As I said, it’s a land use issue. A good portion of the identified problems that he laid out, according to the Statesman article, can be overcome: too many crossings and poor track quality…BFD….really. Competition from freight traffic along the cutoff is not a big deal because the cutoff would have to be purchased to make trail service feasible. Who ever buys the cutoff could set the operating parameters and could make freight run at night. Anybody who thinks this would compromise the bustling freight movements along the cutoff is deluded. Freight traffic along the mainline when you try to get out to Caldwell is, admittedly, an entirely different thing. But passenger rail access has been negotiated on a LOT busier lines than out in Caldwell Idaho so saying that it isn’t feasible is dishonest.

    Random thoughts:
    Don’t assume that bus rapid transit is going to be much cheaper than locomotive service.

    Yes, the bus service sucks and no you can’t have a major corridor transit service (train, BRT, whatever) without bus service. BUT, just because we don’t have decent bus service NOW, doesn’t mean we can’t plan for some major corridor service in the future. To get BRT, rail, whatever, there will have to be a major improvement in funding transit in the Treasure Valley, that would have to include improving the bus system.

    Reading this post one may think I am supportive of rail service. It could work but locals are making decisions guaranteeing that it won’t work…its a decision, not a forgone conclusion. I happen to think it won’t work (BRT or rail) because there is no capacity in either the elected body, the people or government staff to get honest with themselves about having to control land use…the “property rights” rhetoric garners too much of an emotional response in Idaho. Yes, that’s right, it’s because of a bunch of drama queens we don’t get decent transit service.

    Donovan Rypkema has a clear head on the property rights bs:

  19. Dean Gunderson
    May 18, 2009, 9:19 am

    Signal prioritization is the key to bus rapid transit, think of BRT as a bus that thinks it’s a train.

    A BRT express route ensures that riders arrive at a destination station faster than any other user of the road network.

    If the State Street Corridor, and Chinden-20/26, were retrofitted to accommodate median BRT routes the congestion relief would be tremendous. Add a north/south link, say at Eagle Road, and the system would form the backbone of one of the most efficient transit systems in the west.

    The cost of these improvements would be far less than the cost to expand the road network to accommodate the projected travel demand increases — and it would move more people.

    The question in everyone’s mind shouldn’t be the cost of mass transit (taken in a vacuum), but its cost in comparison to the single largest investment of tax-payer money to-date — the cost of the paved road network (cost to construct, plus the cost to maintain). A BRT (and more robust bus network) extracts the greatest value out of that existing taxpayer investment — period.

    The largest tax boondoggle ever conceived is the federal interstate system, especially in communities like the Treasure Valley where it forms a major arterial for local traffic. People like to talk about how mass transit is a waste of tax-payer money, how it doesn’t pay for itself — how exactly do these same people justify I-84?

    Less than 10% of the traffic on the portion from Boise to Caldwell is interstate traffic, and compared to the value of moving manufactured goods across state lines, all local traffic on this same portion of road is a money suck. People worry about low ridership on buses, look at all the single-occupant cars on the interstate — talk about a waste of taxpayer money!

  20. I’m late to the discussion but I’m wondering if Cynthia Sewell was at the same seminar that others have described. This relatively in depth interview from KBSU with the various experts at the meetup is vastly different than the one Cynthia portrayed in her Statesman article.

    I’m on the fence for light rail. But her article did nothing to persuade me against it after listening to the KBSU report. Sounds like there were cons and pros bandied about. Given the current bus use and low gas prices, expanding the bus system seems like a loser before it gets out of the gate.

  21. OK, you were just about getting me convinced that trains are awful and buses are wonderful.
    But now “consultants” and “experts” are saying that, also, which switches me clearly back to supporting trains.
    “Consultants” and “experts” are wrong more often than weather forecasters. After all, the experts are the ones who lost billions of dollars in the recent financial crashes, eh?
    And “experts” guide all the war efforts, relief efforts, etc., and you know how smoothly most of those go.
    It’s been so long since I’ve seen a good bus system … but if we let “consultants” and “experts” design one here, OMG!

  22. P.S.
    I don’t agree with Martin very often, either — he and I have a lot of fun arguing about building nuclear generation facilities around here: He thinks nukes are safe and says the dangerous waste from them is minimal.
    Obviously, I don’t buy either of those views.

    I bet he’d like nuclear powered trains, though. And nuclear power buses would be wonderful (hey, it works on submarines).

  23. A light rail system in the Treasure Valley is a developers fantasy dream. Much of the push comes from big land speculators wanting to sell places like Parma as a great place to live and work in Boise.

  24. I live in SE Boise…I would love to try the Eagle restaurant scene but I will not spend the better part of an hour fighting traffic coming and going. Bus transit is for peasants, sorry, but that is true…all the bus lacks is a half dozen chickens to fit right into everyone’s version of the third world. A real train that went from here to there without stopping at every corner would be used, at least by me, but would never be cost effective. My point is that this love affair with the bus will never translate into riders. It will never make money and will only be used by folk who have no other option.

  25. Yep, dog, that’s true — they did that years ago when we actually had train service through much of the area.
    Of course, I guess we wouldn’t want to do that now: might help Parma and other towns grow, and might move some people out of Boise and slow its growth, and …. aw, who knows?

  26. I’m not sure I get the whole cost effective argument. By these standards the biggest boondoggle ever perpetrated was the federal highway system. What is needed is an excuse for people to get out of their cars and use mass transit. The bus doesn’t do that because while there is some cost savings its actually much slower. Buying more busses that will just be empty ain’t gonna solve diddly. Having people bypass the congestion on the freeway now that’s priceless.

  27. So much for your vindication. Today’s op-ed – – points out that last Friday’s story was erroneous reporting by Cynthia Sewell.

    EDITOR NOTE–I think my vindication stands at or above a lot higher than 64% after visiting the likes of Topeka, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Lansing, Chicago, Minneapolis. I’ve seen politicos elected by far less than 20% of the qualified voters and call it a landslide!

  28. Huh! Didn’t know you were a politico!

    I dunno about Topeka, St. Louis, Indy, Lansing and Minne, but have spent some time in Chicago.
    Its combination els and subways seem to work pretty well.
    The subway in D.C. is great.
    But, no, I won’t suggest a subway for Boise — considering how long it’s taking crews here to dig a couple of holes to put our legislators in (What a great idea!), I hate to think how many centuries it would take to dig tunnels. 🙂

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