Moving Towards Multi-Modal: Alexis Pickering of ACHD talks transportation

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The Ada County Highway District Commission race in the 2020 General Election made history as one of the closest races here in Idaho. Candidate Alexis Pickering initially won by two votes – an incredible example of just how important each and every vote is to electing strong conservation champions to office. The recount brought Pickering’s victory to a four-vote lead. 

Although Pickering (and most Treasure Valley voters would agree) describes the ACHD race as one that “most people don’t even pay attention to,” electing the right candidates to this commission impacts the future of growth and transportation in the Treasure Valley for the next decade.

ACHD oversees the building, maintenance, and operation of almost every road system for all cities in Ada County, making it a one-of-a-kind government entity. “Normally, cities manage their own streets departments,” Pickering explains. For this reason, even lifelong Ada County residents are confused about the management of their streets. 

While there are some benefits in terms of continuity and cost savings, Pickering says the structure of ACHD adds an extra level of bureaucracy making “communication between ACHD and the cities and the county that much more challenging.” 

Pickering’s background is in public health. “I was working with communities like Star and Kuna and Mountain Home on making their built environment – their transportation system, their sidewalks, their pathways – more accessible and safe for all of their residents,” Pickering says. “Every single time any of those big projects had to go through ACHD which actually builds and maintains the roads, the first and only answer we’d get was ‘no.’” 

“It was really challenging to work and try to partner with an agency with that kind of mindset,” she says. “I just felt like there had to be another way.” 

In an effort to tackle these transportation problems from the inside, Pickering joined ACHD’s Advisory Group for Pedestrians. In her time in the group and in her two years as Chair, she became aware that ACHD’s decision-making power was really held by the commissioners. “In order for me to actually bring about the change that I knew a lot of us wanted to see,” Pickering says, “I needed to run for my commissioner’s seat.”

She’d be running to unseat 16-year incumbent Rebecca Arnold, who represented much of ACHD’s traditional assumptions about transit and road planning. “Historically the ACHD commission has viewed transportation as very much car-centric,” Pickering explains. “Just really in the ‘business’ of widening roads.”

To Pickering, transportation planning shouldn’t just be about how to efficiently move cars; it should be about how to move people. “I’m a huge advocate for making our transportation system multi-modal,” Pickering says. ‘Multi-modal’ means embracing multiple modes of transportation such as walking and bicycling. “No transportation system can truly run effectively for all the concerns that we have if we’re just dependent on cars.”

One of those concerns is the rapid growth the Treasure Valley is experiencing. “We really need to be strategic and intentional about how we grow and making sure that transportation is a part of that conversation.” Climate change is another huge concern. From an emissions and air quality standpoint, Pickering says “being solely dependent on cars is not the solution.”

Pickering’s public health background also exposes the equity issues to a car-reliant region. “I’m deeply committed to making it as easy as possible for people to walk and bike safely to where they live, work and play so they don’t have to get into a car if they don’t want to.”

After her election to the commission, Pickering now has the authority to help shape transit-related decisions at the county level. But even in this position, there are still significant barriers standing in the way of her vision for Ada County transportation.  

“There are a lot of things that the legislature makes it really hard for us to do,” Pickering says. The statutes in place greatly limit what ACHD is able to accomplish.

For example, mass transit projects can’t be funded by the Idaho Transportation Department. And, until recently, certain impact funds generated by new development projects couldn’t be used for bicyclist and pedestrian infrastructure, only roads. ACHD was able to get this changed in the legislature, a huge success Pickering hopes to see more of in the coming months and years. 

Recently, ACHD rejoined the Idaho Association of Highway Districts after a previous ACHD commission chose to leave. “We can all collaborate and advocate for those shared challenges at the state capital,” Pickering says, since ACHD isn’t the only entity impacted by the legislature’s restrictive statutes. “We’re going to all be more successful in the long haul because we’re coming together and advocating for them in this big way, instead of ACHD trying to take on the world all by ourselves.”

Pickering talked with thousands of voters on the campaign trail and was empowered to hear that so many folks felt the same way she did about transportation. “The commission has been late to the party in terms of wanting to do what their residents truly want,” she says.

Pickering’s victory was hard-fought by volunteers eager to see the narrative around transportation in the Treasure Valley evolve. “We saw a ton of grassroots energy and response and excitement around ACHD probably for the first time ever because of this race,” Pickering says. “I’m hoping that we can continue to build on that momentum.”

One year into her four year-term, Pickering continues to keep pushing the Commission on the way they think about transportation. “I want to make people proud that they voted for me,” Pickering says, and show them that “it was the right decision [to] endorse this idea that our transportation system should be more than just cars.”

Conservation Voters for Idaho was proud to endorse Alexis Pickering for Ada County Highway Commission in the 2020 General Election, and we continue working with Alexis and the rest of the commission to build a more safe, equitable transportation system for all.

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