The House Transportation & Defense Committee passed a bill last week that would give the state authority over any long-term changes made to the block of streets around the capitol building. BoiseDev senior reporter Margaret Carmel joins Logan Finney this week to discuss why the bill has caught the attention and ire of local officials in Boise and Ada County.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Logan Finney, Idaho Reports:
When I was covering the transportation committee and heard this bill come up, I didn’t really think anything of it. It sounded like a kind of boring, technical piece of legislation. Then I read your story, and it has turned out to be actually quite a contentious local issue. So, Margaret, can you walk me through what this bill would do and the local concerns about it?
Margaret Carmel, BoiseDev:
It would give the state and ultimately the Department of Administration control over any streets that ring the capitol. If anyone wanted to make any changes to the streets around the capitol that last longer than a week, they would have to get the state’s approval. It was pitched by sponsor Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, as a security bill that would allow the state to have the final say on what the streets around the capitol have for security measures, to protect them in case of any sort of emergencies.
But Ada County Highway District has different ideas. They are really, really frustrated by this bill and say it would give the state a way to intervene in the ongoing talks to change Fifth and Sixth streets in Boise from one-way traffic going in different directions to two-way traffic. This has been a big priority of the City of Boise, the urban renewal district Capital City Development Corporation, and Ada County Highway District for a while now. It’s been talked about for years.
Two-way traffic is something that a lot of developers want because it slows traffic down, it creates a safer environment for pedestrians, and it makes people want to visit businesses more. It just creates a more city-like atmosphere that a lot of developers say is more conducive to building out that area of downtown.
Now these folks are saying, hey, this is this is going to stop this plan. Palmer has not answered directly whether this bill was intended to do that, or if he was aware of it, or anything like that. So it’s really unclear exactly what his intent of the bill is, and what its status is right now. It’s been on the House reading calendar for several days, and it just keeps getting held and keeps getting held. So we don’t know what’s going to happen.
For a little more context here, this bill would only cover the block of four streets that directly touch the capitol grounds, and then the kind of trumpet flair of Capitol Boulevard in the little park with the statues of Abraham Lincoln and former Gov. Steunenberg. Is the concern from ACHD that the state would stop them from redeveloping the block around the capitol, and that would throw a wrench into the plans for the entire length of Fifth and Sixth streets?
ACHD’s concern and is that this would completely screw up the whole plan, because if you have a two-way traffic street and then you have one block that is still one-way because maybe the state said, “Hey, we just want this to be one way. We don’t want it to change.” That doesn’t work because then you’d have to go around. I mean, the whole point of having two parallel streets that run one-way in opposite directions is that you go east on one direction and you go west on the other direction and they sort of work in tandem. But if you only have one of those streets that’s one-way — because say, a bill allowed the state to block changing it to two-way, for instance — then it would create a whole bottleneck in downtown because it would continue to have one street running one-way and then it would have two-way on the other street. It adds to a confusing street pattern.
Again, one-way streets, this is something that urban planners have been studying for years. They say that a one-way street allows cars to move really fast and just sort of blow through an area at high speed, which I would say is probably advantageous for someone who simply wants to get in their car, and drive through downtown and not stop anywhere, and get on the highway and go home. It’s something that the city and ACHD feels like would slow down the ongoing urbanization of downtown Boise, and Boise in general.
As we kind of referenced, when Rep. Palmer pitched the bill, he didn’t really reference ACHC or the city. It was really described as an administrative or security concern. It didn’t seem like there are any pressing concerns, but they wanted to have this as an option. Have you heard anything from the more central Boise lawmakers what their thoughts on it have been, and whether they’ve heard from constituents with concerns?
That’s something that is really interesting about this bill. After the bill passed, ACHD Commissioner Kent Goldthorpe got in touch with me. He was upset. The word that he used in my story was he was going to go “ballistic” about this bill. He was quite upset with Rep. Ned Burns, D-Bellevue, and Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, that they did not ask any questions and they said, “Okay, yeah, this sounds like a great thing to do for security. We’re going to pass it.” It unanimously passed.
Then, when my article came out with quotes from Commissioner Goldthorpe criticizing Rep. Gannon, Gannon called me back and he said, “Hey, if they’re so concerned about this, they need to send their lobbyists down here to meet with me. I need to hear about it, because no one told me that this is an issue.”
Again, this goes back to the central confusing point of how the sponsor of this bill has been silent on this issue. Obviously, you and me are not privy to behind the scenes conversations. There might be more conversations going on that we don’t know about. I’m sure there are. But publicly, he has been quiet about how this can impact Fifth and Sixth street. It’s really unknown what his intents are, what he thinks about ACHD, and just the ongoing tension between the local government and the state.
I seem to remember in committee meetings some of the lawmakers — I’m not sure if they were serious or joking — they were making comments about whether they could remove the parking meters around the capitol to make it easier for constituents to come visit. I imagine that would open another can of worms, right?
I mean, if this hands over street control in the area to the state, they could start they could run their own parking meters or they could take them out. That creates another sort of mini-ecosystem within the city where the state is in charge of this one little area, and yet Boise controls the whole rest of the area.
It creates inconsistencies, because if someone’s used to parking on one side of the street and not paying, but then they park on the other side of the street or a block over and they’re getting charged, you know, that’s that’s confusing. Now, again, this isn’t up to me to decide. Whenever I say it’s confusing, that’s up for lawmakers and for the public to decide. So it’s really not my place to weigh in on this. This is just my observations about what this bill could do and the environment it could create whenever you have the state controlling the roads in a local government area.
It could be that if the bill were to pass, ACHD and the city could come to the state and the Department of Administration and they could say, “Yeah, change the streets,” and it could be no problem. We just have no way of knowing.
I have heard some rumblings that the Idaho Transportation Department is maybe unsure about this concept of two-way traffic. I’ve heard conflicting things. They were in a meeting with ACHD and the City of Boise discussing it earlier this year, but then there might be other board members that that are on the ITD board that are not so happy about it.
You have to remember that ITD is in charge of Front and Myrtle streets. That is a state highway that goes through downtown and that adjoins Fifth and Sixth street, so they have a vested interest in this. It is still really unclear exactly what their position is on this issue, and it would not surprise me if they weighed in heavily and said, “You know, we really don’t like two-way traffic on these streets,” and this bill passes, you know, that might weigh heavily for the state administration to say we’re going to nix this.
As we are speaking on Wednesday, the House again held House Bill 25 on its third reading calendar, meaning they have not taken it up for a vote yet. We don’t know if that’s because they are negotiating over it, or if they’re just holding all the bills until more of them stack up. But we will keep an eye on this issue and if anything else develops, maybe we’ll talk to you again, Margaret.
Great. Thank you.
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.