BOISE, Idaho - Each morning, Gary Richardson looks out the front window of his foothills home and scans the skyline. Above the steel cranes towering over new high-rise office buildings, Richardson sees a yellow-brown haze hanging over the city. Below, a steady stream of cars creeps toward downtown.
"I can see Los Angeles coming to Boise
every day," he says with a wry grin.
is trying to stop it. In 1996, this 58-year-old citizen activist
left a $36,000-a-year public-information job with the Idaho Public
Utilities Commission to run for - and win - an $8,000-a-year seat
on his county's highway board. Many people Richardson's age
wouldn't consider making such a move a few years away from
retirement. But Richardson, who took his undergraduate degree at
Yale, never forgot what some professors told him: that he had an
obligation to engage in public service.
more important to make a major contribution to the community,"
Richardson says, "than dying with a lot of money in the bank."
Not everyone in Ada County welcomes his
contribution. The highway commission that once rubber-stamped
requests for new roads now asks tough questions. He and
neighborhood activist Susan Eastlake, who works as an accountant,
now form a majority on the three-person commission that oversees
the construction of new and expanded
Taking cues from cities such as
Boulder, Colo., and Seattle, Wash., Richardson and Eastlake have
led the district toward a policy of putting neighborhoods and
pedestrians on an equal footing with new development in rapidly
growing Boise (pop. 163,000). Ada County, which includes Boise, has
experienced a 30 percent increase in population since 1990, and now
has 267,000 residents.
In one instance, the
commission voted to block a large development involving 3,500 new
homes until adjacent highways were expanded to handle the increased
traffic load. The board ordered highway crews to install bike lanes
on the shoulders of all new major streets and to study the cost of
installing bike lanes on Fairview Avenue, a congested four-lane
arterial lined with strip malls and fast-food joints. That led to a
vigorous debate about the cost of building bike
Richardson's and Eastlake's critics are
many, including the mayors of every town in Ada County, the Boise
Area Chamber of Commerce and the Building Contractors Association.
In fact, city leaders and developers got so mad that they went to
the Idaho Legislature in January with a bill to dilute the bike
advocates' power by expanding the size of the commission to five
seats. The bill passed easily in the pro-development,
lobbied against it, arguing it was wrong for the state Legislature
to monkey with a commission created by citizen initiative in
He lost that go-round, but he may win the
On Nov. 3, Ada County voters will
choose from a range of candidates running for four open seats on
the commission. Eastlake's seat is not open since she was
re-elected to a four-year term in 1996.
election will serve as a referendum on how citizens want to handle
growth and transportation issues in the Boise Valley, and it marks
a stark contrast to the days when developers placed their favored
supporters on the commission unopposed, say Richardson's
"It'll be developers vs.
eighborhoods," says Joanne Uberuaga, a Boise native and financial
planner. "The developers may have the money, but the neighborhoods
have the votes."
Developers have created a new
political action committee, Ada County Taxpayers for
Transportation, and its candidates are expected to receive $30,000
to $50,000 from the business PAC. Its members include Micron
Technology, Simplot Co., and local small
Richardson, who commutes to work on a
red, Gary Fisher "Hoo Kooe Koo" 24-speed mountain bike, isn't
swayed by the prospect of a dicey political fight. "I'm enjoying
this more than I ever imagined," he says.
Peavey-Derr is the developers' choice for Richardson's seat. A
former county commissioner, she says the board is out of touch with
a growing Ada County.
"As a former county
commissioner, I was a little surprised to see such a heated debate
and lack of cooperation over transportation issues," she says.
"When you get every mayor in the county upset, something's wrong."
The highway commission hasn't prevented cities
from growing. In fact, the highway district set a record for new
highway construction in 1997. But Richardson says that to avoid
paving over the city, he wants alternative transportation - such as
buses, bikes, vanpools and walking. Today, only 10 percent of trips
to work or the grocery store rely on alternative transportation,
and he wants to boost that to 25 percent by
"Adding more traffic lanes," he warns, "is
like adding a notch to your belt to deal with obesity."
reports from Boise, Idaho.
can contact ...
* Gary Richardson,
* Susan Eastlake, CPA,
* Ada County Highway District
* Ada Planning Association,
* Ada County Taxpayers for