Fresno City Council Slams the Brakes on BRT

Sprawl and big money prevailed over progress last night in Fresno. The City Council dealt a major blow to local plans for smart planning and bus rapid transit, but stopped short of killing the project completely.

Fresno City Council members caved to specious arguments about BRT, delaying the project. Image: Fresno Bee

Fresno City Council members caved to specious arguments about BRT, delaying the project. Image: Fresno Bee

About $50 million in federal and state grants have been secured to build a bus rapid transit system and operate it for the first three years. But council members — voting 4-3 not to fund the final design phases and hire a project manager — moved to delay the project indefinitely.

The council did vote 7-0 to adopt a state requirement that the project would not negatively impact the environment. That left the door open for it to continue, but it’s possible the Federal Transit Administration will yank $38 million if major changes are made to the agreement.

Council members indicated they expected the project to come back before them, according to the Fresno Bee. But Christine Barker of Flare Together, an organization representing residents of south Frenso, said she expects the next iteration would be lower quality, if it is approved.

The route already barely qualified as bus rapid transit under federal regulations, as it had almost no dedicated right-of-way. The system would have included some prioritization for buses at stop lights, off-board payment and real-time travel information at enhanced bus shelters, as well as frequent service along important east-west and north-south routes.

But Barker said the system had become a target of local sprawl developers who allied themselves with Tea Party activists. The real target of the opposition, she says, wasn’t BRT but a general plan adopted by the city in 2012 that called for dramatically limiting sprawl and promoting walkable development in urban areas. Beefing up transit was critical to the proposal, and last night some elected leaders indicated they thought the two-year-old plan needed to be overhauled.

“A lot of the comment on City Council was saying the comprehensive plan for our region is unrealistic because no one wants to live in south Fresno,” she said, adding that that statement has a lot of racial implications. “They want a new general plan and they want more land for low-density development.”

Barker said sources told her there would probably need to be more “political horse trading” behind the scenes. Council members representing the city’s poorer southern side supported the project, but those in the richer northern areas came down against BRT.

Project supporters who packed the meeting were glum.

“Always refreshing to see the Fresno City Council completely misunderstanding the challenges and trends of the 21st century,” one observer remarked sarcastically during the meeting.  Said another: ”Really hate being bummed about my city and how too many people in charge are not smart enough to let it become better.”