Monday marks the opening of a much-anticipated new transit center in downtown Boise. Transit officials with Valley Regional Transit, the inter-county agency that runs the bus system in the Treasure Valley, is betting the facility will make riding the bus more comfortable.
But will Main Street Station attract new riders? To answer that question, KBSX got on a bus with Kim Wegener one morning in early October. Wegener lives in Eagle and commutes most mornings to downtown Boise to her job at Ballet Idaho.
“I actually rode the bus 50 years ago in Boise and the first buses they had were used school buses," Wegener says while waiting at the Eagle Park and Ride for her bus. "And so I used to ride one on the Bench that every time they would hit the brakes it would make this horrible screeching sound.”
Wegener and her husband have one car, and if she needed to find another way to get to work she could. But she’s a loyal bus rider. There have been times when riding the bus has been less than convenient – like the time her bus was an hour and a half late getting home one snowy evening.
But she says on balance, her experience is positive, and she likes riding the bus.
“I just consider public transportation a really great thing," Wegener says. "To me it’s a goal to get fewer cars on the road.”
Thirty minutes after she gets on the bus, Wegener hops off in downtown Boise, where construction crews are putting the final touches on Main Street Station. The bright underground facility has eight bays for buses to enter and exit. The ambitious project cost local agencies $2.4 million, while a $9.5 million federal grant made it possible. The facility is the newest addition to the Gardner Company's City Center Plaza construction project.
Valley Regional Transit Development Director Rhonda Jalbert says one of transit officials’ priorities with the station was to make the process of transferring buses easier. Under the old system, riders changed buses at two outdoor locations on two different streets. The station centralizes everyone to Main Street. But Jalbert says it was also important to provide things like a ticket counter, public wifi and a locked storage room for bikes.
“They’ll be out of the weather, they’ll have public restrooms and there will also be wifi," says Jalbert. "If they want to take their bike, now they can, and they have a place to store it properly.”
Jalbert says another goal of the station is to attract new riders. But Jaap Vos –who formerly was the chair of Boise State’s community and regional planning department and is now with the University of Idaho in Boise – says the fact that the facility is underground makes it feel hidden. He says it could be symbolic of the bus system’s place in the Valley’s overall transportation picture.
“Transit should be present, it should not be hidden from sight," Vos says. "It should not be somewhere underground. It’s almost like you’re treating it like it’s a nuisance. ‘We don’t want to see transit in downtown.’ I want to see buses everywhere.”
Vos says building a transit center is a bold statement that buses are becoming a priority – but he’s not sure it’s the best use of money.
“Yes you need to invest in it, but you need to make it a real viable choice, where it actually becomes a serious option.”
Vos says buses should run every 10 minutes and service should not be limited during nights and weekends. He acknowledges this is a big leap from the schedules that exist now, where buses come every half-hour on the most popular routes during peak hours. But Vos says it’s the only way to gain more riders; he’s convinced that if the system expands, that more people would ride. Vos though, can’t point to a city where this scenario has played out.
John O’Neill is among those who would like to see more service.
O’Neill has been riding the bus for the last 15 years, commuting from the Bench to work in downtown at the Record Exchange. He cares a lot about the system, but has been disappointed with routes that end before 7:00 p.m., leaving him to find other ways home if he works late or has evening plans.
“And I understand the conundrum that Valley Ride faces," O'Neill says. "Their ridership isn’t there to support the routes, but the routes don’t work for people so they don’t use it.”
On a Sunday – a day when buses don’t run – O’Neill bikes to the new City Center Plaza and peers through the glass. He says he’ll use the station, but wishes transit leaders would focus on creating a more usable bus system.
As of now, Valley Regional Transit has no plans to increase the frequency of bus stops. Officials say they would love to expand the service, but there’s not enough money to do so. They hope to use the excitement around the opening of Main Street Station to get more people interested in giving taking the bus a try.
Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill
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