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Know the West

When government gets in growth's way


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.

Richardson 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.

"It's 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 highways.

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 lanes.

More roadside politics

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, Republican-dominated Legislature.

Richardson lobbied against it, arguing it was wrong for the state Legislature to monkey with a commission created by citizen initiative in 1971.

He lost that go-round, but he may win the next one.

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.

The 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 supporters.

"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 businesses.

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.

Judy 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 2015.

"Adding more traffic lanes," he warns, "is like adding a notch to your belt to deal with obesity."

Stephen Stuebner reports from Boise, Idaho.

You can contact ...

* Gary Richardson, 208/336-2128;

* Susan Eastlake, CPA, 208/383-9088;

* Ada County Highway District office, 208/345-7680;

* Ada Planning Association, 208/345-5274;

* Ada County Taxpayers for Transportation, 208/333-8568.