Within a couple of weeks, construction will begin on Fresno’s new bus rapid transit system to provide faster bus connections from the north and east ends of the city with downtown.
But after years of talking about transit improvements, city leaders couldn’t wait to celebrate on Wednesday, choosing the first 100-degree day of the year to gather at the Fresno Area Express bus terminal at the Manchester Center shopping center to mark the start of work on what Mayor Ashley Swearengin described as the “long-awaited, long-planned, long-discussed and hotly debated” BRT system.
Today’s kickoff, for me, is all about saying, ‘We finally got to the finish line.’
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
The new system, expected to become operational in November 2017, will be marketed by FAX under the brand Q – the initial stands for “quick” and “quality.” It will replace existing portions of two current FAX bus routes: along Blackstone Avenue from River Park in north Fresno to downtown Fresno, and along Ventura Street and Kings Canyon Road from the Sunnyside district to downtown. Construction is expected to cost about $30 million over the coming year.
Swearengin said city officials have kicked around the notion of BRT since the 1990s, when now-City Manager Bruce Rudd worked in the transportation department. “This has been one of those projects that got started 20 years ago, and my job has been to carry the baton and make sure things actually get done,” Swearengin said Wednesday. “So today’s kickoff, for me, is all about saying, ‘We finally got to the finish line.’ ”
Federal grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation are covering most of the $30 million cost to build the system, which will include new buses, reinforced bus parking areas and new shelters at bus stops, modifications to traffic signals to give buses a priority for green lights, and vending machines where riders will buy tickets before they board buses instead of dropping quarters into a farebox.
Fresno’s FAX system currently provides about 14 million rides annually, said Brian Marshall, the city’s transportation director, and the bus routes on the Blackstone and Ventura/Kings Canyon corridors carry about 1.6 million riders a year.
Those figures add up to “one of the largest fixed-route transit systems anywhere in California,” Swearengin said. “More people are using public transit today along Blackstone Avenue and Ventura/Kings Canyon than in all of Central California.” But she acknowledged that the bus system is plagued by complaints about long wait times and inconsistent service, “and if you have other options, you’re likely going to choose them.”
We’ll get you from one end of the city to the other, from all the way east to all the way north
Brian Matthews, Fresno city transportation director
Marshall said the system will cut travel times roughly in half along the corridor through a combination of fewer stops – about every half mile, instead of every quarter mile – and giving buses traffic signal priority. Buses will also run more frequently along the BRT route. “We’ll get you from one end of the city to the other, from all the way east to all the way north, and along all of the economic centers,” Marshall said. “We’ll do that in a rapid time, in about an hour’s time.”
Faster and more comfortable, convenient service is also expected to increase ridership, but Marshall isn’t sure by how much. “One thing we know about ridership, it increases very slowly,” he said. “But once it catches and someone enjoys the ride, it catches on. We know that come the start of BRT, and with all the changes we make, it will encourage people to ride.”
Current FAX bus fares are $1.25, with discounted fares of 60 cents for seniors, disabled or Medicare cardholders. Children under 6 ride free. Monthly passes are $48, or $24 for seniors, disabled or Medicare members. Fares are set to increase by 25 cents next year. BRT fares will be the same as regular FAX bus fares.
The first phase of construction, from mid-June through August, will be on Blackstone Avenue between Shaw and McKinley avenues. Succeeding phases will be along Blackstone from Shaw to River Park from September through November; Blackstone, Abby Street, Ventura Street and downtown Fresno in early 2017; and Ventura Avenue and Kings Canyon Road from about First Street to Clovis Avenue in the summer of 2017. Work on the FAX bus station on Van Ness Avenue in front of the Fresno County Courthouse is expected to start this month and continue through February, while work at the Manchester Center FAX terminal is set for next spring.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said he was proud of Fresno’s efforts to improve its transit system. BRT “is not a foreign concept. This is a transportation system that has met with success in Denver and many other major cities around America,” he said. “To have bus rapid transit here finally is going to make a big difference.”
He added that improving connections from north and southeast Fresno to downtown “is imperative to the revitalization of downtown Fresno.”