Wednesday, July 7, 2010

ACHD Commission Says No to Bird in Hand

About 4-5 years ago, ACHD undertook to widen Ustick Rd from 3 to 5 lanes from Cole Rd to Five Mile Rd. This project cost the taxpayers of Ada County about $20,000,000 when everything from right of way to construction to drainage to soup to nuts was added in. A lot of the right of way costs (about $3 million) were attributed to 3 office buildings at the corner of Ustick and Maple Grove and a house to the east. Dentists occupied 2 buildings, a doctor the third. The doctor's office was torn down to make way for the widened intersection. Both dental offices still stand. One was purchased, I surmise, because the dentist would have ended up very close to the road, but perhaps it was going to be torn down. A house, directly to the east was also purchased perhaps to be torn down to allow for access to the two remaining offices but perhaps not. That house still stands, and today stands empty. The plans obviously changed with the direction of the wind. Fascinating how a project of this magnitude was not better planned. Ah well.

The one dental office, closest to Ustick Rd, has been leased for the past 2-3 years. The other dental office, purchased for a cool $700,000, stands as empty today as it has for the past 3 years. The interesting thing about this building is that it didn't have to be purchased at all. It's not close to the road, it's parking was not affected and it has access to both Ustick and Maple Grove Rds. And yet, it became a windfall to the owner and an empty white elephant to the taxpayer. For three years this building has stood empty, off the tax rolls and becoming obsolete and with need of some maintenance to bring it up to snuff but with the taxpayer footing the continuing bill for utilities and grounds maintenance. What's also curious is about 1/4 mile away to the east on Ustick Rd, a duplex is within 12 feet of Ustick Rd. Only one side of the duplex was purchased, the owner of the other side got zilch. How the owner of the dental office made out so well and the poor owner of the unpurchased half of the duplex made out so poorly would make the subject of an interesting investigation would it not?

So we've had a dentist come to ACHD and ask to rent the currently vacant dental office. After much dickering, ACHD and the potential renter came to terms. The dentist wants a five year lease, a few improvements to get the building up to ADA code and he'll spring for the landscaping and parking lot improvements. All told, over 5 years ACHD (read the taxpayers) should net about $140,000. The dentist will pay property tax, utilities and do the grounds maintenance. The dentist may want to buy the building after that time or who knows, he may want to buy the building before then. Or at the end of the 5 year period, someone else may want to buy the building. The possibilities are practically endless.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the lease signing. It's hit a wall.

For some reason, ACHD staff has engaged a planner to look at all the possible uses of this property, along with it's neighboring public owned properties, in the context of what is allowed under Boise City's Comp Plan (Blueprint Boise) and how the properties could be reconfigured and if the buildings should remain or razed. And the cost to taxpayers will only be $2800. So the lease and the dentist are on hold.

However, I think it's just plain stupid to engage someone to do what anyone who can read and ask questions could figure out for free.

One - Blueprint Boise shows this corner to be mixed use.
Two - The mixed use category provides the foundation for community and neighborhood activity center development with a variety of uses in relatively small increments. In other words, what's there now is probably a lot like what will be there in the future. There won't be a big box store or a hospital or a car lot or a highrise. This information was available from a Boise City Planner
Three - in speaking with the Assessor's office about the price of the property if it were bare ground, the going rate today is $4/sf IF it's 1/2 acre parcels. Larger parcels are about $3.75/sf. That means the taxpayer's investment of almost $2 million here could be repaid at 10-15 cents on the dollar if sold today.
Four - the Assessor said that to get back to the 2006/07 land value levels will take ten years.
Five - checking with a broker in the private sector about that 10 year timeframe and if it is too pessimistic, the broker said it probably is in the ballpark.
Six - I've got an inquiry out to a local economist as another check on the 10 years.

Time of inquiries elapsed -25 minutes. If I were to print up a fancy report and talk about moving lot lines, I could fill up another hour or two. ACHD staff is not that busy that they couldn't do this analysis on their own for nothing.

Today the staff came to give an update to the Commission. I've known about these negotiations and the dentist has come to me in frustration. We're going to be lucky if he doesn't just throw up his hands and walk away. When I mentioned that that might be a possibility, President Huber said "let him walk". Unbelievable.

The most annoying thing is that with a little thought, staff could have brought forward the lease and done the future of the property analysis at the same time. But that's not what they recommended so the rest of the Commission decided to put the lease on hold. It's doubtful that there are any birds in the bush that we can afford to spit on the bird in the hand.

Monday, July 5, 2010

ARRA, JFMS, and the Stimulus Brothers

Sorry it's been so long folks. Trouble with the site plus a vacation makes for long periods with no blogging.

I thought that this story would have made it into the daily "newspaper" by now, but if so, I couldn't find even a blip. (Great business model they have now. If you don't pay extra for an "enhanced" tv guide that most, if not all, daily newspapers in America provide on Sundays or Wednesdays, then you get nothing! But I digress.)

Out of the $787 Billion stimulus bill or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, 6% or $48 Billion went for transportation projects. Even though it's absurd that people in Ohio, Florida and New Hampshire are paying for Idaho roads while bankrupting our children's future, ACHD applied for almost $15 million in stimulus funds. If ACHD hadn't gotten stimulus money, then some other state would have spent it, and our children would have been bankrupted anyway with nothing to show for it.

Originally, ACHD received almost $9 million which was programmed for roadway overlays and sidewalk repairs throughout Ada County. Many of you reading this will have begun to experience the construction that is rampant. Since ACHD staff went hellbent for leather preparing the applications, ACHD was able to take advantage of other sources of federal funds to construct 96.5% of all the originally envisioned projects. It also was helpful that prices for roadway materials have fallen, allowing the money to go further.

ACHD also applied for almost $1 million in stimulus II funds AKA Jobs for Main Street. The projects included Pedestrian Countdown Heads and the State St Intelligent Transportation System. Neither were funded under son of stimulus but other federal funding was obtained in the amount of $1,580,000 allowing these two efforts to be fully completed at once rather than in stages.

All total, ACHD received close to $16 million dollars. Thank you taxpayers of the great states of everywhere else. And thanks to ACHD staff for their good work.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Blueprint Boise

The City of Boise is nearing the end of their work on rewriting their comprehensive plan, named Blueprint Boise. ACHD staff has reviewed the plan with an eye towards the subjects that have an impact on transportation or the delivery of the transportation element like roads vs transit or "complete streets".

The comments provided by ACHD will be advisory but the hope is that Boise will take them into account and perhaps tweak the plan element so that ACHD and Boise are on the same page, so to speak. ACHD's comments are not binding on Boise, but actually, the comp plan is not binding on ACHD. Yet, again, the hope is that ACHD and Boise will work together, just as the hope is that ACHD and any city in Ada County or Ada County itself can work together, and in the case of Boise, let's hope that hope actually does triumph over experience.

I really only had one comment on the comments and that was regarding connectivity. Boise's plan states "establish a connectivity index to promote a connected system of roadways to alleviate traffic congestion, reduce travel distances, and increase travel options." ACHD's comments basically stated that indices have been tried before, haven't worked that well but will consider connectivity requirements on a case-by-case basis and will take Boise's input into consideration.

My issue is that I get irked when there is a stub street in an existing area that theoretically was put there to connect with an adjoining area but that when the time comes to connect, the existing neighborhood objects to the potential of more traffic or "riff-raff", and the stub street (or perhaps it's a stub pedestrian pathway) doesn't get connected. Makes it hard to have connectivity when there is no connection.

One would have thought I blasphemed against all that's holy in the ACHD Protocols. Yikes. I was told in no uncertain terms by President Huber that what I said was just wrong and they almost always connect the stub streets. Maybe one or two have not been connected but those are the ones that are remembered but there really haven't been very many. Oops, turns out that's dead wrong. If the issue comes before the Commission, there is a 50-75% chance the stub street will NOT go through. Staff does NOT make the decisions on a case-by-case basis - they follow a policy. Only Commissioners can circumvent policy, and in the case of connectivity, it appears that's done on a regular basis.

Commissioner Carol McKee was adamantly in favor of going case by case. She said "this is the people's house (huh?)" and they should be able to come and be listened to. I absolutely agree with the latter part of her statement. Unfortunately, in my experience, both on and off the Commission, I haven't found her to be that welcoming to the public.

It's hard to be faced with angry citizens who want their neighborhood left the way it currently is and not what was planned, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and make a vote that doesn't make everyone happy. Sad to say, that rarely happens for connectivity when appealed to the Commission.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

See, We CAN Work Together

Today, the ACHD Commission hosted a number of local elected officials to present information on the potential Three Cities River Crossing and get some feedback. We had participation from Garden City, Boise, Eagle, Meridian and Ada County.

Lisa Applebee of ACHD presented an overview of the history of the project with the end result being a build v a no build decision we must make in the near future. This bridge was to provide another crossing over the Boise River between Eagle Rd and Glenwood to relieve traffic from the existing bridges. This was originally a recommendation out of the Bench-Valley Transportation Study in the early 1990's. The preferred alternative has one entrance/exit at the north end linking to State Hwy 55 and then a coat hook effect at the south entrance/exit linking to Cloverdale Rd and Mountain View/Mulberry. The cost of the bridge will range from $60 million to $83 million, but could possibly be well over $100 million when all is said and done.

It was pointed out, however, that this is really a state bridge. It connects Hwy 44 (State St) with Hwy 20/26 (Chinden Blvd). The four intersections on which traffic will be lessened are also intersections of state highways. Cloverdale Rd and Mountain View Dr and Mulberry Ave are local roads, generally residential. Does it really make sense for Ada County taxpayers to spend local dollars on a bridge that by its construction will increase traffic on residential streets? At such a huge cost?

There were a number of ideas expressed for the funding of the bridge. A bond election (unlikely with a 66/23 plus one threshold), a toll road (a private equity firm would have to be approached on this and sold on the idea) or federal funding. Regarding the latter, it is becoming apparent that with the debt load of the federal government, local areas and states are not going to see large amounts of federal funding in the coming years. It would not be prudent to begin a project of this magnitude on the basis of assuming federal funding was going to be there and then find half way through that the money spigot was turned off leaving it to Ada County to fund. (And philosophically, should Ada County ever assume that taxpayers in California or Oklahoma or Boston fund what is not a bridge of federal significance? Certainly, Ada County would feel irritated at having our tax dollars go to fund a parochial use in another state or city.)

If ACHD were to fund this bridge totally out of local funds, it would wipe out our entire capital budget for 3-5 years, depending on the total cost. In other words, no other project would be built in Ada County except the bridge for that period of time.

It was a very thoughtful discussion and one that could not take place without every one being in the same room at the same time hearing the same thing.

Interestingly, both Eagle and Boise indicated this project was never high on their transportation wish lists.

The COMPASS Board will hear the presentation on June 21 and will decide on a recommendation on July 19. The ACHD Commission will have a public hearing on the fate of the bridge on the evening of July 21. Anyone who wishes to provide input can wait until July 21 or send a letter or e-mail anytime before then.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Too Many Regulations

I am always amazed at the diligence of any bureaucracy, including ACHD, to continually come up with new regulations and laws and guidance and policies. One would think that since there is pretty much nothing new under the sun, that we would have been all regulated out by now and simply need to enforce the regulation, laws, guidance and policies currently on the books. But no.

In fact, at the meeting on May 30, 2010, our legal counsel informed us that they were working on a new policy for something, and I have to apologize, I can't even remember what it was. But it was a replacement for something that is already in place. It seems that any nuances would have been thought about before.

This reminds me of two dumb things from my Boise City Council past.

The Capitol Terrace parking garage in downtown Boise was constructed of concrete and had 4 open sides over the second story. The building which houses the Capitol Terrace condos to the east of the garage, was built a few years later. Since the new building would close off one of the four sides, the Boise Building Department in conjunction with the Fire Department decided that the concrete garage needed a sprinkler system I guess to keep the concrete building from burning down and catching the concrete condo building from catching fire as well. A deluge system at the doorways between the two buildings was not enough. I thought this new "regulation" was stupid and wasteful then and I still can't think why it was needed.

The second was the regulation of taxis in the City of Boise. There was an issue with taxis that really had some safety issues and some cab drivers that looked like ragamuffins. So the City Clerk at the time came up with some standard dress items like no tank tops, and some safety check requirements for the cabs. But she went further and called for a limit to the number of cabs allowed in Boise. I suppose she read how successful limiting medallions in NYC has been in keeping the cost of driving a cab down. Anyway, when this item came before us, I wondered why we cared how many cabs there were in Boise. At the time, and probably still now, driving a cab was/is a tough gig and no one was/is going to be a millionaire doing it. This would have been an unnecessary regulation that a bureaucracy for some reason decided would be a good idea.

Sometime further regulations are needed, but enough thought should be given so the issue does not keep having to be revisited time and again because something was left out. It might also be helpful if for every new regulation, two needed to be rescinded.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Unused Property

ACHD owns a lot of property in Ada County. It was acquired over the years, and is still being acquired, when roads were widened. Much of it is not needed for future rights of way. ACHD staff is working through this inventory and is slowly but surely assessing which properties are surplus, which will be appraised and which will be offered for sale in the near future. However, there are a lot of property records to go through and clean up.

Later this summer, 8 more properties will be offered at auction and if they are not successfully sold, then they will continue to be on the market.

This still leaves a lot of property. If you are interested in a piece of land and find that ACHD owns it, you can accelerate the surplussing process by calling Chanon Romo, our Supervisor of Right of Way at 387-6275. Chanon also is in charge of leasing our property as well. There are many houses and office spaces which could be leased at very competitive prices. And every property sold or leased returns dollars to the taxpayers so it's in everyone's best interests to move on this area.

ACHD has a lot of vacant parcels, some big and some small. Many have access to water. Wouldn't it be great if they could be used as community gardens? ACHD has to maintain these parcels to keep them looking nice or at least decent. How much nicer would they look if they were used to grow vegetables and flowers. If you wish to pursue this idea, give me a call at 866-4068 or e-mail me at