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.”

  • I think it’s more than possible FTA will yank the money. Look what their message was to Cincinnati when that city tried to halt its FTA-funded streetcar project and use the money for road projects last year: Proceed on schedule since you signed a legal agreement with us or give us the money back immediately. Along with: You aren’t allowed to use the money for anything else, and if you do we’ll sue you and put a hold on an equal amount of federal funds earmarked for your region. So Fresno has absolutely no wiggle room–major changes aren’t allowed at this point. I’m sure the FTA will soon send them a letter telling them so. What’s really amazing is the cluelessness on the part of Fresno City Hall–as if Cincinnati’s actions and their immediate federal rebuke didn’t just happen a month ago.

  • The city isnt trying to use the money for anything else. This is your standard tea party “we dont want tax money spent on anything” grandstanding.

    City hall firmly supports the project. Its the tea party council members deep in developer pockets that are the problem.

  • gregm123456

    Poor Fresno…shooting yourself in the foot.

  • It was a Tea Party effort in Cincinnati, too Tea Party interests in suburban Cincinnati organized to try and get the FTA money diverted to roadway projects.

  • artnouveau

    I would like to know why it is that a project like Fresno’s rapid bus system, which was granted $38 million in federal funds, is not able to move forward sans a City Council vote.

    Based on what is written above, specifically “But council members — voting 4-3 not to fund the final design phases and hire a project manager — moved to delay the project indefinitely,” why wasn’t funding for final design and project-manager hiring not provided for in the funding grant? This “formality” seems like the only sticking point in that these aspects appear at this time to be what’s holding the project back.

    And, as far as hiring a project manager and final design funding, why isn’t it the voters — who had supposedly approved this project under the 2006 local Measure C transportation sales tax initiative which, by the way, passed by a 77 percent majority — who get to decide whether or not Fresno BRT moves forward, especially if all-important voter-approved Measure C funds are available? Which begs the question: What is the point of having a voter-approved local transportation sales tax measure, whereby projects on this order and others are given the go-ahead, only to have such stopped in their tracks by a “formality” or “technicality” of all things? It just doesn’t make sense. And where is the Measure C Citizens Oversight Committee in all of this? What is their role? I thought it was “oversight.”

    If the overarching reason for denial of funds is needs-based, as in a “fix-it-first” mandate being met before Fresno BRT is able to proceed, my thinking is the BRT could quite possibly be viewed as an upgrade to the existing service provided in those two identified corridors, especially if the enhanced bus service is able to attract greater ridership.

    And, I have to ask what the purpose of improved transit is. Is it not to provide better transportation options to the community at large, reduce vehicle miles traveled, encourage real estate development and redevelopment along the BRT corridors, contribute to improved air quality which, in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley is horrendous, as well as to boost economic activity, which in Fresno is quite lacking, apparently? From what I read and understand, the city is teetering on bankruptcy.

    The area’s woes can probably be blamed, if not in whole, then at least in part, on status quo policies and practices.

    In Parade magazine’s “A Better Way To Travel?,” written by Peter Richmond in the Nov. 4, 2007 issue, Richmond cited National Corridors Initiative principal executive James RePass who said: “The game is rigged against rail.”

    I wonder if in Fresno, “the game is rigged against” BRT.

  • James Wade Sponsler

    The city council has the say in this because Fresno lacks an independent agency that runs metro transit system. Rather than have a transit authority moving the proposal forward and only needing the city council to approve right of way, council members are responsible for the entire transportation system and to decide if this is a prioritization to them rather than to citizens.
    Measure C’s board only decides if projects submitted to them are satisfactory enough to dole out the sales tax collected.

  • BeeRockman

    The article mentions just what kind of a project this actually is: “almost no dedicated right of way”. . . “Some prioritization for buses at stoplights”. . . “Barely qualified as Bus Rapid Transit.” In other words, a regular old local bus with two minutes shaved off the travel time. What all cities need is a RAPID transit system, with times comparable to driving on surface streets with no traffic. This includes (1 an actual BRT, with a separate ROW, about .8-mile station spacing, no stopping between stations and grade separation if absolutely necessary, 2) LRT with all the specifications listed for the former, with more extensive grade separation or 3) fully grade-separated heavy rail. Fresno definitely qualifies for (1 and maybe (2. Residents should spend their time lobbying for these options instead, even if money is tight, because these will offer more benefits in the future.

  • artnouveau

    I agree. But, personally, I don’t believe improved transit – rapid or otherwise – is going to come to Fresno anytime soon, that is, without strong grass roots involvement, the kind of involvement present and instrumental re the defeat of the proposal/plan to outsource residential trash collection to a private firm.

    The Fresno Bee’s “The City Beat” reporter George Hostetter provides a good assessment here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/02/03/3748679/thoughts-on-thursdays-fresno-city.html

    That said, California high-speed rail could help turn the tide in Fresno and other Valley communities with planned HSR stations, but there is no guarantee that even this is going to pan out. One columnist declared California high-speed rail to be on “life support.”

    One can always dream, though.

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