Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Thinking bigger: Regional transit needs study

The great peril of living in the tranquility of the Wood River Valley is that its serenity of surroundings can induce a subconscious sense of isolation from reality.

Gradually, however, reality is beginning to dawn on public agencies.

The Blaine County Sheriff's Department is facing up to the reality by constructing a new facility for more prisoners, a need generated by increased crime in a growing community.

Fearing a crisis in growth of new subdivisions, Blaine County has imposed a building moratorium to catch its breath and plan ahead for the ripple effect on public services by more homes, more people.

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority is studying the need for a new, larger airport to handle larger airliners, increased general aviation traffic and to comply with government safety standards.

And within the past week, representatives of area cities on the Blaine County Transportation Committee agreed the time had come to think bigger about transit—not merely bus service, but regional transit planned for a far larger population and a sprawled area of development.

Planning for regional transit will require extraordinary cooperation among agencies and communities that today are not thinking beyond their defined boundaries. They must peer into the future, and try to predict behavior of people decades from now.

What will be the likely price of gasoline 15 or 20 years from now? High enough to force people out of their automobiles and into buses? What type of buses will attract new riders? How many buses will be needed? On what scheduled frequency?

And if a new airport is built farther south, how could transit serve hundreds of workers building an airport for a year or more, and thereafter, airport employees as well as air travelers?

Could highway rights-of-way or the old Union Pacific rail bed snaking through the Wood River Valley be studied for possible light rail transit?

Does the new design for an expanded state Highway 75 between Ketchum and Timmerman Junction allow for high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes for express buses, vans and car pools—or even light rail?

How to finance regional transit? Is enabling state legislation needed?

As pricier homes force workers farther south in search of housing, how far should a regional transit system extend? Should several counties become partners in a system?

Opportunities—and pitfalls—along the way are too enormous for pure guesswork.

A basic goal of a new regional organization should be to commission a study with enough vision and foresight for planning a multi-function transit system capable of serving an area not even imagined by today's optimists.

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