County Control of Boise’s Streets Is a Hot Potato

Boise, Idaho, doesn't control its streets. Boise, Idaho, doesn't control its streets. Sam Strickler/Shutterstock.com

In Boise, Idaho, the city’s streets are not the city’s. Technically, “public rights-of-way” are under the “administrative authority” of the Ada County Highway District which effectively controls them on behalf of the public.

For some city officials in the state capital, that complicated distinction has been a point of contention for a long time. In recent months, battles over the city streets—which included the county removing a protected bike lane downtown that city officials had championed—has heated up again.

It’s actually an old controversy: Sixty-eight hockey-puck-shaped vehicle-detection parking-meter sensors a city agency embedded in downtown streets last year without telling the county before the county demanded the city cease installation. The county, which said Boise needed a permit to install the sensors, has threatened to dig them out of the street, and could start that process on Monday, according to the Idaho Statesman.

Boise officials, who recognize the county’s “administrative authority” over the city streets, have threatened to file a lawsuit.

According to a joint letter from Mayor David Bieter and City Council President Maryanne Jordan to Ada County Highway Division President John Franden posted by the Boise Guardian: “ACHD’s continued arbitrary interference with the City’s statutory right to install parking meters within public rights-of-way has made litigation almost unavoidable.”

So what’s the fuss over the sensors? They’re linked to the parking meters, which in turn will reset the meter when a car pulls out of a parking space, even if there’s paid time still left on the meter. They’d also allow city officials to monitor parking habits and enable smartphone users to find empty spaces, according to the Statesman.

Boise wants to install a network of 800 vehicle-detection sensors that would effectively include every on-street parking space in the downtown area. In June, the county proposed authorizing 200 sensors, an offer the city turned down.

The city, in its letter to the county, thinks it’s legally in the clear thanks to a 1996 Idaho court ruling that clarified that the public, not the county, technically owns the streets even though the county administers public rights-of-way. It’s complicated:

Despite the City’s clear statutory authority to install parking meters in the public rights-of-way, and despite ACHD’s lack of discretionary authority to deny the City its statutory access to the public rights-of-way, the City cooperated with ACHD for over one year as a gesture of goodwill in negotiating amendments to the existing Master License Agreement.

. . .

However, there is no statutory basis for ACHD to require a license agreement. The license agreement requirement, unreasonably imposed by ACHD without statutory authority, is contained in the Ada County Highway District Policy Manual. However, even assuming ACHD possessed authority to require the City to enter into a license agreement, ACHD’s own Policy Manual exempts the City’s statutorily-authorized installation of parking meters from the  license agreement requirement.

If a lawsuit moves forward, it will only exacerbate existing tensions between the city and county, where nerves are still frayed over the earlier conflict over a buffered downtown bike lane that the county had removed, angering the bicycling community and many city residents in the process.

In late June, Boise officials rejected a county proposal to form a committee to study bike lanes in the downtown area, according to the Boise Weekly:

[City Council President Maryanne] Jordan submitted a letter to the ACHD commissioners June 24, stating that, "By a unanimous vote, the Boise City Council requests that the currently configured stakeholder group be suspended until such time that the leadership of the Council and Commission can meet to identify specific policy direction for the effort."

She wrote the council is unhappy with the stakeholder panel because it's been asking for a meeting with the commission since the bike lanes were ripped out in the beginning of June, wishing to "identify policy goals and objectives prior to establishing the stakeholder working group."

Without establishing those objectives, Jordan wrote, the council is "deeply concerned" that "the effort will be in vain."

She was also displeased that the council had no input on the composition of the stakeholder group. She wrote that  the city's transportation planner wasn't even included in the panel originally.

The Ada County Highway Division’s Board of Commissioners will meet on Monday in a closed-door session to discuss the potential lawsuit over the parking sensors, according to the Statesman.

WATCH: Boise's new downtown bike lane, which was later removed.

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