Revised Fresno bus rapid transit plan returns to City Council

The Fresno BeeMarch 15, 2014 

People, including Ger Her, left, gather for a rally at Manchester Mall in support of the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system in Fresno in January.

JOHN WALKER — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

Fresno's proposed super-duper bus system is making another stop at City Hall.

This time it'll be hauling a very important passenger — the 2035 general plan update.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Thursday will ask the City Council to spend $1.5 million to hire a firm to manage the design and construction of the Bus Rapid Transit system.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The council in late January rejected two BRT contracts on a 4-3 vote that stopped the project dead in its tracks. The decision came after a seven-hour hearing that staggered past midnight and left everyone punch-drunk from fatigue and confusion.

Supporters and opponents pitched everything but the kitchen sink in an effort to win. By lunch the next day, Swearengin had decided she must deliver a new BRT plan that addresses council concerns over cost, operations and service.

The proposal landing on the council dais Thursday has smaller buses and a new way for passengers to board. It shaves about $13 million off the original price. The extra money would help add BRT service along a five-mile stretch of Shaw Avenue. The original two routes — Blackstone Avenue and the Ventura Avenue-Kings Canyon Road corridor — would remain.

Swearengin hopes these and other tweaks are enough to change at least one vote.

"I think we've got a good path forward," she says.

But Thursday's hearing will have a twist that promises to make the debate far more complex.

BRT and the 2035 general plan update have fueled council chamber discussion for the better part of four years. They would arrive together, but never as equals.

A general plan issue would come forward, and BRT would be mentioned as an afterthought. A couple of months later, they would switch positions of dominance.

The Jan. 30 BRT hearing was the perfect example. Council President Steve Brandau and Council Members Lee Brand, Clint Olivier and Paul Caprioglio were the no votes. Brand seemed to speak for all the next day when he said the real beef was with the general plan, the blueprint that guides how Fresno will grow.

But that cleared up nothing. Administration officials during the hearing repeatedly said the BRT system, with its promise of faster and more reliable public transportation, is pivotal to a general plan update designed to redirect growth to the inner city. Central to that goal was the council's decision in April 2012 that mandates 45% of new residential growth to be infill development.

Nobody has had the foggiest notion what that means in practice. Administration officials wouldn't fill in the details until they had a sense of what the public, in particular developers, would stomach.

This explains in part why the Jan. 30 hearing still was going in the early morning of Jan. 31 — it's hard to debate where BRT fits into the big picture of Fresno's future if that picture is blurred.

The general plan update draft is still weeks away from public viewing, but the mayor and an advisory committee (Brandau, Brand, Council Member Oliver Baines, private-sector leaders and city officials) have come up with a dozen or so ideas. These concepts will come to the council chamber on Thursday side-by-side with the BRT proposal. They will be equals in the debate, Swearengin promises.

The original BRT plan already had been hacked and mended several times. It proposed an L-shaped service route through the heart of Fresno. It would go from Blackstone Avenue near the River Park shopping centers, head south to downtown's Courthouse Park, then go into southeast Fresno via Ventura Avenue/Kings Canyon Road.

Fares would be the same as on regular Fresno Area Express routes. Riders, including those in wheelchairs and with bicycles, would pre-pay and board 60-foot buses from a raised platform. Buses during peak hours would arrive every 10 minutes.

Bus stations would be a half-mile apart, compared to a quarter-mile on most regular routes. Stations would give customers real-time news on their bus's location. BRT buses at some intersections would get a brief head-start on the rest of traffic.

These and other features would lead to speedier rides and more reliable service, BRT supporters said.

Longtime FAX customers would enjoy better low-cost transportation. Occasional riders might choose bus over car more often.

The estimated cost of about $50 million would come mostly from the federal government.

The new plan, crafted by a team headed by City Manager Bruce Rudd, sounds a lot like the BRT system in Stockton, sometimes called "BRT lite." Buses would be 40 feet long. Passengers would board at curb level, not from platforms. Bus stations would be portable, providing flexibility to meet new customer patterns.

The smaller buses and modest stations would generate savings to pay for the Shaw Avenue route from Fresno State to West Avenue. That's the BRT part of Thursday's hearing.

Next will come some first-ever explanations of what the general plan update would mean in practice.

The council needed two separate hearings and nearly 10 hours of debate before it decided in April 2012 on a guiding theme for the general plan update. Emotions ran high as the council said it would end a half-century of northward sprawl by mandating that 45% of future residential growth be infill.

Supporters said Fresno finally was placing a priority on social justice.

Developers asked: What does it mean?

Swearengin said the advisory committee has answers. Two stand far above the others.

She said the definition of infill should follow state guidelines — the development of any under-utilized or vacant parcel in neighborhoods at least 10 years old.

And she wants the rehabilitation of an existing home or building in which the owner invests at least 50% of the property's value to count as infill.

Swearengin also recommends a host of developer incentives for Pinedale and older neighborhoods extending from west Fresno and southeast neighborhoods to Herndon Avenue.

New growth would be confined to southwest and southeast Fresno and an area west of Highway 99. Swearengin estimates that, over the next 20 years, 42% of residential growth would be infill.

BRT must be part of the mix, she says.

The recommendations aren't set in stone. The City Council over the next year will make the final decisions. Swearengin says she knows she is throwing a lot at the council on Thursday. But the time has come for hard work, she adds.

"We have as good a shot as we've ever had at making our existing neighborhoods viable again."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or Read his City Beat blog.

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