City Hall politicking on Bus Rapid Transit is going strong

The Fresno BeeJanuary 31, 2014 

The jawboning has begun on Fresno's proposed new bus system.

City Hall's sleep-deprived politicians are staking out their negotiating positions on the inevitable return of the Bus Rapid Transit plan.

The $50 million proposal failed to clear a key hurdle early Friday morning when the City Council rejected two BRT planning contracts on a 4-3 vote. The decision ended a seven-hour hearing that featured 93 speakers from the audience and testy speeches from several council members.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin sees the bus system with its greater convenience as key to cleaner air (public transportation goes viral) and inner-city revival (high-density living makes sense). Council President Steve Brandau and Council Members Paul Caprioglio, Clint Olivier and Lee Brand, with varying degrees of intensity, said the plan is too risky.

But Swearengin didn't wait for sun-up to release a statement -- she'll immediately begin working with her opponents to fix BRT.

Her administration, Swearengin said, "will bring this item back for reconsideration."

The mayor hadn't changed her tune by late Friday afternoon.

"I am optimistic we can find common ground, not just on BRT but also on some of the bigger planning issues," she said.

Caprioglio said he knows Swearengin views downtown and its nearby neighborhoods as important.

"I agree," he added. "But they're not everything. Other districts are being ignored, especially mine."

Caprioglio didn't need to spell out his bigger point: Some tender loving care for his District 4 and his revised view of BRT might be connected. Other BRT opponents no doubt can spell as well.

Thursday's hearing began at 5 p.m. and ended 15 minutes after midnight. The audience was standing room only on the council chamber floor and spilled into the balcony. City Manager Bruce Rudd, who doubles as transportation director, explained the issues at hand. Several council members struggled to keep their speeches under a half-hour.

One point was obvious: BRT is just a bus.

It's got some bells and whistles that the regular Fresno Area Express buses don't. The BRT bus, at 60 feet, is 20 feet longer. BRT stations will be spaced a half-mile apart, compared to a quarter-mile on the typical FAX route. BRT's platform boarding and pre-boarding payment system will mean less time spent in stations.

BRT routes would be along Blackstone Avenue and the Ventura Avenue/Kings Canyon Road corridor.

Federal and state grants, earmarked only for BRT, would fund construction. Other grants would pay for the first three years of operation.

Just about everyone at the hearing said FAX has much room for improvement. FAX has been around for decades. It has long had challenges. City Hall somehow muddles through. Bus Rapid Transit, should it get the green light, most likely would follow a similar path.

Which suggests the stakes on Thursday had nothing to do with an extra-long bus.

"BRT wasn't the issue," Council Member Lee Brand said. "The issue was the general plan."

The council in early 2012 approved a 2035 general plan update theme that calls for 45% of future residential growth to be infill. By some estimates, infill projects had been no more than 5% of Fresno's annual residential development.

The Swearengin administration has spent the past two years figuring out what the 45% mandate means. What are the infill boundaries? Does rehab count as infill? What are the time limits?

These are just a few of the politically charged general plan decisions that will soon come before the council. The answers hammered out in closed-door negotiations almost certainly will determine BRT's fate.

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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