Growth brings increased complaints about traffic. But cities like Meridian say they can’t just stop new construction

Posted at 4:58 PM, Nov 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-10 18:58:34-05

This article was originally published by Autum Robertson in BoiseDev.

Like many cities in the Treasure Valley, the City of Meridian has seen significant growth. According to the U.S. Census, in 2010, Meridian had just over 75,000 residents. By 2020, the city grew to 117,600.

With what feels like a new subdivision being proposed at every city council meeting, there are no signs of growth slowing in Meridian. And more housing brings more cars on Meridian’s roads.

Though traffic is consistently brought up at city meetings, the city and various public agencies only have so much power when it comes to passing or denying a project due to road concerns — including traffic.

Only so much the city can do

To help mitigate traffic and plan for other road-related problems, Meridian city leaders say they work with different agencies, like Ada County Highway District and the Idaho Transportation Department, that can add conditions to a project to help ease congestion.

“They could say you need to widen this road, build a bridge, do this, that, or the other thing, but they can’t say you can’t do that project,” Meridian Planning Division Manager Caleb Hood said. “They have to come up with conditions that say ‘to mitigate your impacts here’s what we need you to do.’ So that’s what a lot of this comes down to, again, is looking at the nexus between a project and their impacts to the land and the roads.”

While ACHD and ITD can add conditions to projects, the agencies don’t have much say over the project’s approval, even if they believe it will contribute to traffic.

ITD Public Information Officer Jake Melder gave an example of a new project off of Highway 20/26 and Black Cat Rd. where ITD and ACHD were both unable to make a certain road requirement.

“Meridian reached out to us to say, ‘hey, we’ve got this development application, Could you review it for traffic impacts,’ and they did the same thing to the Ada County Highway District,” Melder said. “As part of our review, we noted that the developments were going to increase the number of trips for turning from westbound 20/26 to northbound Black Cat Rd. and that the number of trips would justify the construction of a right turn lane so that people could get out of the flow of traffic.”

Melder said they recommended Meridian make the lane a condition of building the project.

“The city chose not to, which is well within their right and authority,” he said. “But now we have a situation today where some people who’ve moved into those houses are wondering, well, ‘why isn’t there a right turn?'”

Why can’t the city stop growth?

Citizens and sometimes officials throw around the idea of stopping growth to lessen traffic. However, a growth moratorium is not easy to implement in Idaho.

“We can’t just stop growth,” Hood said. “Idaho is geared towards private property rights. If a property owner comes and says, I can build these homes, here’s how I’m going to get them water to drink, and when they flush their toilets, I got a plan for that — we have to have a reason to say no.”

Hood says sometimes cities do say no — but those cases often go to court for judicial review.

“So that’s where we just think citizens need to understand if we’re to deny a project, we have to be legally sound in that denial,” Hood said. “It can’t be because we don’t like the developer, we don’t like the color of the home. It’s got to be very specific about why we’re denying it.”

Solutions that fit into the budget

One way to ease traffic is to widen roads. ITD currently has several road improvement projects, including one to widen two miles of Chinden Blvd. between Linder Rd. and Locust Grove Rd.

However, Hood says improved public transportation could possibly have the biggest impact on easing traffic. BoiseDev previously reportedthat the city would get two electric busses for a new Meridian route. However, Hood said a new route and two busses will not seriously impact the flow of traffic.

“We can’t forever continue to be everyone driving their own car by themselves, that’s why there’s traffic,” Hood said. “…So one way to mitigate that in other communities is to provide a public transportation system and we just don’t have that.”

In Boise’s FY-2022 budget, the city is contributing over $7.7 million to Valley Regional Transit. In Meridian’s FY-2022 budget, the city contributed $425,354 plus an additional $150,000 for the new 30 Pine bus route. Public transit is something various Meridian officials have been pushing for, but they say Meridian just doesn’t have the extra funds like Boise.

“Basically, that’s like a 10th of our budget (the Boise contribution). So what are you going to cut,” Hood said. “Are you going to not hire those police officers? Or you’re not going to build that fire station? Or you’re not going to maintain that park or build that park? To give and take we’re limited in the dollars we have. And add public transportation and force a city to pay for public transportation with general fund dollars, this is not how it’s done in the rest of the nation. And we’re really limited that way.”