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Boise streetcar has no long-range plan

Boise streetcar has no long-range plan

Wayne Hoffman
December 27, 2009
Wayne Hoffman
Author Image
December 27, 2009

Last Monday, the head of Boise’s urban renewal agency told taxpayers to do a reverse Fleetwood Mac – stop thinking about tomorrow – when it comes to long term capital obligations for Boise’s streetcar proposal. Then, he conjured up a scenario that would require Canyon County taxpayers to share in the burden of paying the operating costs of the capital city’s streetcar system.

At a meeting to pitch the Boise streetcar project to property owners, Capital City Development Corporation Executive Director Phil Kushlan was asked how long the streetcar system could be expected to last once in operation, and, critically important to the landowners who are expected to subsidize it, what happens when the system depreciates and needs to be replaced.

Kushlan said the system is expected to last 50-60 years, and that there are no plans for system replacement once equipment reaches the end of the life cycle. If the City Council approves the streetcar project early next year, property owners will be told to provide the front money for the capital costs associated with the $60 million streetcar system. But in 60 years, the $60 million streetcar system would cost $353 million to replace, assuming inflation of 3 percent a year. How will the city come up with the money? Will landowners again be asked to ante up? Answer: No clue.

Is it a good idea, one participant asked, to start a project not having any idea how to pay for the basic capital replacement costs down the road? Answered Kushlan: “We do it all the time.”

“We do it all the time,” obviously, is not a plan.Business owners should reasonably conclude that they’ll be on the hook forever to meet the needs of “their leg” of the streetcar project. The concern about long-term funding, by the way, is more immediate than Kushlan might convey. According to the Federal Transit Administration, it is more likely that the streetcar assets will last up to 30 years, not 60. For a look at aged public transit systems in action, one need only visit Washington, D.C., where a June 22 crash on the 33-year-old Metro system killed nine people and injured 80.

Answering a critic’s charge that there are too many unknowns surrounding the streetcar and its funding, Kushlan said that locally-generated sales tax revenues might used to pay the operating expenses associated with the streetcar – the so-called local option tax. Of course, that’s impossible under current state law, and Kushlan knows that, but he’s also imagining a day when the Legislature will change its historical stance in opposition to the local option sales tax.

“But won’t people just cross the county line to avoid paying the higher sales tax?” one audience member asked Kushlan. “No,” Kushlan answered, “Because the tax will be in two counties” which would be used to pay for mass transit throughout the valley. So now, Boise residents are being asked to put their support behind a project predicated on the notion that it will be funded in part by federal money that hasn’t been secured, a sales tax funding source that doesn’t exist and Canyon County taxpayers who have yet to weigh in at all.

Here we have a string of “ifs,” unknowns and a public that remains unconvinced. Still, the Boise project that was once simply called “the streetcar” is now being referred to as “Phase One,” with as many as two other phases to follow. The more we don’t know, the bigger this project grows. Why? Apparently, the answer is simple: We do it all the time.

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