Fresno council chews on plan for user-friendly bus service

The Fresno BeeDecember 12, 2013 

The Fresno City Council and the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Thursday renewed their fight over the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system.

Some council members, among them Clint Olivier and Steve Brandau, have been sharp critics of the nearly $50 million project that's supposed to produce selected bus routes with more convenience than the current system.

With several key votes looming next month, City Manager Bruce Rudd decided to conduct a BRT workshop to remind the council of all the factors at play.

Should the council kill BRT, Rudd said, the city almost certainly will have to spend several million dollars rewriting a new general plan update based in significant part on the bus system.

For the most part, Rudd and the council covered no ground that hadn't been explored periodically for several years.

BRT would use bigger buses, easier boarding and roadway advantages to make public transportation more inviting. Its first phase will handle two major corridors -- Blackstone Avenue from the River Park shopping center in the north to downtown and Kings Canyon Road/Ventura Avenue in the southeast to downtown.

Most of the construction money will come from a federal grant. The remainder is to come from the state.

In addition to a superior service, Rudd said, BRT is vital to Fresno meeting its federal and state mandates for higher-density living and cleaner air.

Council critics worry about operational costs and BRT's effect on the health of the standard bus system.

Olivier said Fresno Area Express buses and bus stops need to be upgraded.

Brandau asked if the city is wise to force an expensive system on a market that has shown scant interest in it.

"For a lot less money, we could revitalize an entire system," Brandau said.

Rudd said the federal grant can be spent only on BRT.

Council Member Oliver Baines said he heard a lot of grumbling about BRT from the dais but no solid reason for rejecting a system with considerable potential and funded by other government agencies.

Rudd and several council members explored potential effects of BRT on the 2035 general plan update that is still a work in progress.

The update requires at least 45% of future residential development to be infill. The remaining 55% will be what's called "greenfield." Defining infill and greenfield remains a key hurdle.

Rudd and the council circled two questions:

Is BRT designed primarily to entice someone to live in an infill area who otherwise would choose a greenfield area?

Or is BRT's main purpose to improve the life of someone who would have settled in an infill area anyway?

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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