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Streetcar Proposal: Comparing Boise's dream with Little Rock's reality, Part I

Streetcar Proposal: Comparing Boise's dream with Little Rock's reality, Part I

October 5, 2009
October 5, 2009

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter asked, in the September 30th issue of the Idaho Statesman, if the city "can afford to not build a streetcar" downtown. At the present time, the Boise Streetcar Task Force is conducting a feasibility study, which is expected to be finished by the end of 2009, or 2010.

The streetcar system would carry a healthy price tag; the city estimates construction would cost $60 million, and annual operating costs between one and one and a half million. According to Boise Streetcar Information, a brochure passed out at the Mayor's open house on Oct. 1st in downtown Boise, the initial $60 million would provide the 2.3 miles of track, power lines and three trolley cars. The city has already applied for a $40 million dollar federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant, and the remaining $20 million or so would come from a combination of city funds, CCDC funds, and assessments on property owners living or doing business within a three block area of the trolley's route, through the creation of a Local Improvement District (LID). Operating costs could come from parking fees, advertising and sponsorships, general funds, and taxing district revenue.

At the open house, Adam Park, spokesman for Mayor Bieter, said a trolley system would spur economic development and investment downtown, and could actually lead to lower taxes and property values. "We feel that growth on the periphery of town is fundamentally not friendly to taxpayers. By going out and out, on the outskirts of town, rather than allowing the growth to be within the existing infrastructure, it costs more money. The reason for that is, as you grow out, that's new roads; that's more money. That's new sewer, water, electrical lines; that's more money. You gotta build new police stations, new fire stations that are out there so you have four minute response times, which we always have at our fire department.

If you do the same growth within the existing infrastructure, you have those sewer lines already in place, you have the power lines, you have the police stations and the fire stations, so you don't have to build new brick and mortar investments that are quite expensive."

Furthermore, Park says studies show a streetcar, or trolley system, would bring $2.1 billion dollars in investment, and nearly 4,000 new jobs into downtown Boise over the next 20 years. These studies and all the information in the brochure are available at www.ccdcboise.com/streetcar.

Wow...sounds like a real life "build it and they will come" scenario, doesn't it?

Perhaps not. The Idaho Freedom Foundation wanted to know how other cities that had recently built trolley/streetcar systems were doing. So we looked specifically at Little Rock, Arkansas. The reason we chose this city is, in early July, Mayor Bieter and a contingent of city officials visited Little Rock, to take a gander at their trolley system, which has been in operation for nearly five years now. They were impressed, and use the Little Rock River Rail system as an example of what a streetcar in Boise should/could/would be. The reasoning goes: Little Rock and Boise are of similar size, both are state capitals and university towns. However, there are some differences in this tale of two cities. One is the difference in tourism opportunities, another is in the projected and real costs of the system. For now, let's compare what the two cities have to offer their respective downtowns.

Both have convention centers, libraries, a children's museum, restaurants, shopping and bars along and/or near their streetcar routes. But what Little Rock has that Boise doesn't is significant...for starters, the Bill Clinton Presidential Library.

According to Virginia Fry, manager of the Little Rock River Rail, most of their passengers are tourists, and most of them are headed to the Clinton Library. It opened in November 2004, just weeks after the River Rail went into operation. In its first year alone, the Clinton Library drew 400,000 visitors. Boise has nothing to compare to this tourist attraction.

The streetcar crosses the Arkansas River into neighboring North Little Rock, to Dickey-Stevens Park, home of the Class AA minor league Little Rock Travelers, whose schedule began April 9th and ended September 7th. Memorial Stadium in Garden City, home of the Boise Hawks, wouldn't be served by a trolley. The Travelers are a much larger draw, with a longer season, than the Hawks. In addition to baseball, Dickey-Stevens Park also hosts music acts, like the September 29th concert by the Dave Matthews Band.

Another big tourist draw to North Little Rock along the trolley route is Verizon Arena (formerly Alltel Arena). It seats 18,000 people, and in the next six weeks will host such acts as Miley Cirus, Kiss, Robin Williams and Dane Cook. Qwest Arena, on the other hand, holds up to 6,800 concert goers, and at the time of this writing has no concerts scheduled through January. Verizon Arena also is home to the Arkansas Twisters arena football team. What Qwest Arena has that its North Little Rock counterpart doesn't are the Idaho Steelheads; there is no hockey at Verizon Arena.

Finally, Little Rock's River Market is a 10,000 square foot year-round indoor food market and specialty shop complex, with adjoining outdoor pavilions totaling 15,000 square feet. It's adjacent to the amphitheater and ice rink at Riverside Park, and the nightlife of the River Market District. Downtown Little Rock is also home to Heifer International, an agricultural charity organization. While Boise does have the Saturday Farmer's Market, the Basque Block and BoDo, our shopping, dining and entertainment opportunities don't quite measure up to Little Rock's.

The point of this comparison is not to belittle Boise, the Hawks, Qwest Arena or the Basque Block, but to show that while downtown Little Rock has a number of major tourist attractions, we do not. Southwest Idaho's tourist opportunities are largely outside downtown Boise...Bogus Basin, Birds of Prey, the Idaho Center, Sun Valley, City of Rocks, just to name a few...and would not be served by the streetcar, as Little Rock's are. It bears repeating that Fry says their streetcar system is a mode of transportation largely for tourists, not so much for commuters.

Would enough Boiseans use a trolley for day-to-day commuting to make it worthwhile? Being as the definition of "worthwhile" differs from person to person, it remains to be seen. Ask someone in West Boise, which would not be served by the streetcar, and someone who lives a block from the route, and their answers would probably differ. In the mayor's brochure, it projects ridership of 1,200 to 1,600 passengers per day. Boise Streetcar Information says "This assessment assumed free fare; even a modest fare charge could significantly decrease ridership." This must be true, because even with Little Rock's modest fare of $1 per adult and 50 cents for children under 12, they've had only 800,000 riders in five years, or 439 riders per day.

In the next report, we'll take a look at the numbers. We'll look at how the Little Rock River Rail system was funded, and how projected costs have borne out. We'll compare how they've done with how the Boise Streetcar system is projected to shape up. Stick around...this story is far from over!

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