Friday, February 27, 2009

Good News on Sidewalks

Have you ever wondered why, if the sidewalk in front of your house needs to be repaired, you had to pay half of the cost? After all, sidewalks are on public property.

Well, now that has been changed. On February 25, 2009, ACHD Commissioners voted to change the policy that covers sidewalk repairs.

As of now, if the sidewalk was damaged by someone unknown, ACHD pays 100% to repair it. If the sidewalk was damaged by roots from a tree in the right of way, ACHD pays 100% to repair it. If a tree used to be in the sidewalk and the sidewalk was constructed around the tree, but the tree is now gone, ACHD will pay 100% of filling in the void.

However, if the sidewalk is damaged by a root from a tree on private property, the property owner is responsible. The watchword here is don't plant your trees too close to the sidewalk. They may be fine when they are small, but they do tend to get bigger.

Congratulations to Errol Morgan, ACHD, who came up with these commonsense guidelines.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stimulus to Nowhere

I read with fascination Sunday's Statesman, in which they previewed ACHD's potential stimulus programs.

Now, before I go further, I'd just like to say that this is really not a stimulus bill that Congress passed in a hurry. Giving unemployed people more unemployment wages (taxable of course) is nice, but no unemployed person ever created a job. Saving or creating 3 1/2 or 4 million jobs is not really accurate since most of the money goes into government coffers. Unemployment in government jobs is not really the sector that's hurting, neither are education and healthcare, which is where the vast bulk of the $785,000,000,000 ish ( plus $350,000,000,000 ish in interest costs each and every year into the future) will go.

But I digress and the whole issue is both maddening and depressing.

So apparently ACHD's stimulus money is going to be spent (if we get any) on 67 intersections, traffic signal upgrades for Curtis and Ustick and reader boards on Vista Ave, Orchard St and Meridian Rd north of the freeway.

I recall hearing about the traffic signal upgrades to Curtis and Ustick but not about 67 intersections and I have no idea where the readerboards came from. Maybe they're included in the upgrades but since those happen at Curtis and Ustick, and Vista, Orchard and Meridian Rds aren't like near there, I have no clue - and theoretically I've been briefed, as have the other Commissioners.

What I recall discussing, and I have been at all the meetings, I think, are some Intelligent Transportation Systems (traffic signal upgrades) and some overlays on some roadways which we still have to determine which ones, and some sidewalks. These projects were all touted as being able to fairly quickly and cheaply come up to federal standards.

But readerboards? Eagle Rd was just upgraded with new traffic signal systems and computer linkages to make the traffic flow more smoothly - and now Eagle Road actually flows, at least in mid afternoon. But I don't see any readerboards there and I can't imagine why we would spend money on these things.

I can make the case for upgraded traffic signals being a stimulus to the local economy as well as the construction projects (overlays and sidewalks), but reader boards? Not so much.

UPDATE: The reader board is gone from ACHD's stimulus list.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is Anybody Listening?

Is anybody reading this blog? That's a question that's on the mind of anyone who blogs. Are my postings just turning into random bits floating through the ethernet or does anyone actually read them and pay attention.

Apparently, I have a readership.

How do I know this? Well, there are those of you who are grateful for an inside look at a rather opaque agency - ACHD - and who have told me so.

And then there are others like one ACHD Commissioner who has scolded me for being irresponsible in reporting on what happens at public meetings. See ACHD doesn't tape public meetings that occur before and after the main Commission meeting held at the dais in front of TVTV. When I've brought up that a lot of direction is given at these pre and post meetings and that they should be taped, this same Commissioner doesn't want to do that.

All I'm doing on this blog is what the Statesman should be doing - reporting on issues that may be of interest to the taxpaying public. These include issues like the proposed transit mall machinations, the budget cuts ACHD must sustain, and in the future, what we might do under the stimulus money should any come our way.

But according to this Commissioner, this is irresponsible. Well, I reject that stilted kind of thinking. These meetings are open to the public. Granted they are at an inconvenient time in an inconvenient place and are not really welcoming. But they are public.

And until we start taping these meetings and providing a paper trail for the public to see how decisions are made and how money is spent, then I guess in the words of Old BlueEyes, "call me irresponsible".

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Budget woes hit ACHD

Well, it's official, not that it will ever be memorialized in the Idaho Statesman who didn't bother to send anyone to the budget retreat ACHD held on Friday.

The cuts in the 2009 budget equal 10% as a result of dealing with the collapse in revenues in the first 2 quarters.

We cut $3,700,000 to make the first quarter budget true up. This was done by shaving a lot of administrative costs like supplies, uniforms, travel and training and temporary employees. A hiring freeze is on and will continue into the foreseeable future. We are also delaying buying right of way for a project that won't be constructed for a year or two - hopefully land prices will go down in this area rather than up when we're actually ready to buy the land.

And now, the news is in for the second quarter, which goes from January to March. Impact fee collections - down, down, down. Highway user's fund (gas tax) - down. Sales tax - down. Liquid tar bids (for road maintenance) is up, up, up.

The bottom line is that another $4,500,000 must be cut. Everything is basically fair game. There will be unpaid days for employees. There will be cutbacks in dues we pay to various organizations like COMPASS. Some studies will go away. Some employees who were hired to do X will end up doing Y because there is nothing to do in the X area but there is in the Y tasks.

During the budget retreat, I espoused a few principles in how the cuts should be made and I think there was general agreement from the other commissioners.

First, everyone will not take the same day off. These will be staggered so the offices will be open and the service people will still be available to the public. Services to the public should continue to occur. Streets will still be swept, snow removed, roads sanded when necessary, etc.

Second, maintenance of our existing roads and bridges is the most important thing we do. It makes no sense to build a new road while letting what we've got deteriorate and then cost more to fix in the future. Roads will be striped and overlaid with new pavement where necessary and chip sealed to extend the life of the pavement.

Third, we need to continue community programs like safe routes to school and pedestrian crosswalks.

Fourth, we need to keep signal upgrades as intact as is possible.

Fifth, new construction of capital projects will be the first to go.

It's more than likely that more cuts will happen during the summer and that the budget for next year will be very austere. It's not pleasant, but it is doable.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round

Today ACHD Commissioners met with the Boise City Council in a quarterly meeting. This is a long standing tradition and one that can pay great dividends as long as everyone is open to new ideas and acknowledge the issues that both entities face.

The main agenda item was a briefing on the Multi-Modal Center. That's a fancy way of saying transit center in downtown Boise even though it's pitched as a place for pedestrians, bikes and the potential trolley/streetcar/light rail thingy. This facility would take the buses off of Main and Idaho Sts, where they currently park themselves when not running around the county and put them in a north/south area. One of the potential locations would be in the parking lot of the Empire Building and the other would erect a structure across 10th St between Main and Bannock.

There's a certain urgency to finding and approving the final location in order to maintain the current $9 million plus federal earmark to build the Multi-Modal Center. And that brought us to today's meeting and a little controversy that seems bound to get bigger.

The Statesman intimated in a recent article that the 10th St location was a done deal. ACHD was quoted as saying the public input processes of ACHD were superior and there was no done deal. The Boise Guardian has profiled the issue and it's writer got an admission from ACHD President Carol McKee that the meeting today would be open to public comment. And apparently there were people present at the meeting that wanted to speak - except - they were not invited to put their two cents in.

I did ask what was the public sentiment to date from the neighboring owners and retailers. We were told that everyone had been contacted and I got the impression that there were no problems with the scenario of turning 10th St into a MMC.

But since the meeting I've gotten some e-mails from merchants along 10th St who disputed that.

And therein lies the problem.

On an accelerated schedule, we, Valley Transit, Boise City and ACHD, all need to make sure that any scenario chosen is the best, takes into account the people most closely impacted, and yet somehow speed through the process to safeguard federal earmarks.

There will be opportunity for public input to impact the decision. It's not a done deal yet. But the quickest way to make it a done deal is for people not to participate.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Conehead Question

For those of you who get the Sunday Statesman as a real newspaper, have you ever seen the Road Wizard column in the section known as Insight? It has a little graphic of a traffic cone, therefore, I refer to it as the conehead column.

If you've seen the conehead column, do you actually read it? And if you read it, do you read it every week or just once in a while?

I ask this because there are a lot of misconceptions going around, both inside and outside ACHD, about this column.

I think most people assume it's a service run by the Statesman. Wrong, it's a paid advertisement and costs taxpayers almost $50,000 per year to run. But, the response is, we're getting such a good deal - it's discounted from a ginourmous figure of like $150,000.00 that we would have to pay if we didn't get the discount by publishing it every week. Yes, but we also put this online at ACHD's website even though one has to search for it and we have it on the website for literally free.

I think most people also assume it's written by one of the four communications specialists we have in our seven member communications department. Wrong again - it's written by an outside person that we pay $8400 per year.

Now, I've brought this up to the other ACHD Commissioners because I think there's a better use for the money than paying someone (and it turns out this has been going on for at least 15 years) on the outside to write the column when someone we already pay a salary to can write it. But no joy.

The comments range from everyone I know loves this column to - it's a way of getting our message out to - people appreciate the way it's written to - well, what work would our people not be able to do if they were doing this.

Now, I'm neither a communications specialist nor a public relations person, but I do believe that it can't take too long to read the questions that come in, pick a few of them out, transcribe those questions to a word doc and then find the answers to those questions. Maybe an hour or two a week? And we could do it in a less snarky and derisive way, although others have described it as too cutesy.

Anyway, the gist of the issue is, do we pay someone to write the column and pay the Statesman to put it in the paper at a cost of around $55,000.00 per year? Or do we write it inhouse and publish it on line for free?

Since we're looking to make budget cuts of $4,500,000 this week and more in a few months - I think I know the answer to that question.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

It's only money

You may have read the news that ACHD is in the throws of a budget crisis. Impact fees were overestimated during last summer's budgeting. (As one of only three to comment on the budget and the only one to testify on the particulars of the budget at the hearing in person, I can say I told them so because I did tell them the impact fee revenue seemed awfully high. Alas, I was ignored then.)

ACHD is looking to rebudget over $3.7 million plus, this just in, another $800,000 from an unexpected increase in the liquid tar bid, a material which is used in the chip seal process. So, in total, the rebudget may be as high as $4.5 million - for the first quarter. The bad news is, the second quarter may be nearly as bad.

Currently the staff has found the savings as a hodgepodge of cuts in small accounts and some big projects that won't be funded as planned.

However, this $800,000 liquid tar bid has really thrown another kink into the process. Either the money is found to pay the higher bid price by cutting somewhere else, or the liquid tar is not purchased in whole or, if possible, maybe part and the roads don't get chipsealed this year, which could speed deterioration of our investment.

Any budget changes must preserve to the greatest extent possible, (1) the services provided to the public and (2) maintaining the roads that we have. It makes no sense to hold the personnel and administrative budgets relatively harmless while not putting sufficient money into maintenance. It also makes no sense to build new projects at the expense of maintaining what we have.

We're having a budget summit on February 13, 2009 at 8am. It's open to the public but I doubt it will be taped or televised. Come if you can. Or review the budget at and call or e-mail your suggestions.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Building Roads in Context of the Surroundings

ACHD has a few citizen committees, one of which has lost all members but one and another of which is generally representative of most of the cities in Ada County. This latter one is called the Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC). (One thing you immediately realize about ACHD is they are really big into acronyms.)

I wasn't going to ever attend any of the NAC meetings, but a member asked me to go to the one in January, and I was glad I did.

Rocky Bogert presented context sensitive road design solutions as a way of making our roads and our speed limits match up.

Currently, ACHD builds roads that are big enough to have cars go 50 mph but then tells drivers they may only go 30 to 35 mph. Police from the cities are expected to enforce the speed limit but they cannot be around 24 hours every day on every road. Therefore you have areas where cars are speeding through neighborhoods, some drivers get tickets, and no one is happy.

Rocky's suggestion, which comes from a national organization so it's been done in other places, is to narrow the driving lanes of the roads down to accomodate the type of traffic that is usually on the road, ie cars. His suggestion was specific to the new 30th St in Boise, but it has great application anywhere in Ada County. For example, 30th St will be mostly used by cars. Therefore, there is no need to have the streets wide enough to be used by semis, they can be accomodated by the narrower lane, they just might have to go a little slower. The road itself will be designed for cars in a neighborhood and not a freeway.

Context senstive design makes a great deal of sense. We need to start looking at our transportation system in respect to the uses that border the roads. Roads need to fit the surroundings. If we do that, we'll have a great start to making land use drive the transportation and not transportation determine land use.