Riding a Fresno bus often means a long wait and trouble finding a seat. In other words, not much has changed.
It wasn't supposed to be like that.
Measure C, Fresno County's half-cent transportation sales tax, promised better bus service when voters ratified its 20-year extension in 2006.
Today, in a crippled economy, the measure yields far less money than expected. Promises have been cast aside, at least for now.
It's a vivid contrast to the boom years. Back then, a committee drawn from local governments and community groups wrote the extension plan and set aside 20 cents of each Measure C dollar to support bus systems in Fresno, Clovis and rural Fresno County.
Among the promised benefits: Buses every 15 minutes on the busiest routes, free rides for people older than 65, and new bus routes in underserved suburban areas.
So great was the promise of that new funding stream that Fresno city officials decided to start early. They got $11.1 million in federal grants to begin 15-minute service on four FAX routes that were standing-room only with 30-minute service.
"I think everybody believed we were going to see a lot of money rolling in and we were going to be able to make some big changes," said John Downs, FAX planning division manager.
The good times didn't last. When the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008, sales tax collections -- including Measure C -- tumbled as well. Now, the measure is projected to yield almost 30% less revenue than was expected when the extension plan was written in 2005.
For Fresno's FAX system, that means $164.5 million over 20 years instead of $235 million. For Clovis, it's $23.6 million instead of $33.7 million. For the rest of the county's bus systems, there's $47.9 million instead of $68.4 million.
And that -- along with parallel cuts in sales tax-driven transit funding from state government -- means much of the promise of Measure C for public transit has been unfulfilled.
Vidal Medina, who cannot drive because he is legally blind, rides the bus every day to his job as independent living specialist at a social-service organization called Resources for Independence. He says Measure C hasn't improved transit at all for him.
"Today, I still walk a mile to the bus stop. It still takes me an hour and 15 minutes to get to work. If the bus is overloaded or running late, you can add a half-hour to that," he said.
Complaints like those were a driving force behind the Measure C plan's increased emphasis on transit.
Better transit was billed as a way to reduce air pollution by getting people out of their cars, and relieve unemployment by making it easier for people to get to their jobs.
Measure C funding, it was promised, would make buses more attractive by putting more of them on the busiest routes to reduce travel times and ease overcrowding. And for a while, with an assist from the federal government, that's what it did.
Fresno's experiment with buses at 15-minute intervals began in October 2005 on Blackstone Avenue's Route 30 and expanded one month later to Route 28 on Kings Canyon Road. Route 38 on Cedar Avenue was added in January 2007 and Route 34 on First Street the following June, just before the new Measure C took effect on July 1, 2007.
All four routes previously had buses every 30 minutes. So the change doubled the number of buses on each route and cut maximum waiting times by half. For the first two years, the federal grants covered the costs. Measure C was supposed to pick up after that.
Fast forward to June 28, 2010. By then, the federal grants were done. The economy had collapsed. And retail sales nose-dived, taking sales tax receipts with them, including Measure C.
In three years after the crash began, the measure's yield dropped by 20%. The same thing happened to revenues from a second major source of funding for California transit systems: the state's Local Transportation Fund, which, like Measure C, is derived from sales taxes.
Combined, those two revenue gaps put a huge hole in the FAX budget. So the city reduced its 15-minute service to six hours per day -- three in the morning and three in the evening.
The effect on service was immediate and noticeable. Midday buses on the affected routes were suddenly packed.
"We were leaving people standing on the street," Downs said. "We couldn't fit them in the bus."
Within months, FAX administrators reacted and put all four routes on 20-minute intervals all day long. That gave riders one more bus per hour at midday but one fewer in the morning and evening. The cost, Downs said, was about the same, and some of the midday crowding was relieved. But the service wasn't what Measure C had promised.
"Obviously, it's not as good a service as 15 minutes," he said. "It means that many more people on each bus ... It also impacts the on-time performance, because the more people you carry, the more times you're stopping."
It also isn't what members of the committee that drew up the extension plan were envisioning.
"It's ironic, given our economic situation, that more priority is not given to transit," said Kevin Hall, who represented the Sierra Club. "We have a high percentage of people going to lower-paying jobs or school who are dependent on transit. If you can't rely on transit to get you to work on time, you lose your job."
Revenue from Measure C also was pledged to help expand service in areas such as northwest Fresno, where buses are few and far between.
That hasn't happened, either. In fact, in the five years since the Measure C extension was approved, FAX has dropped four routes from its system.
The most recent route to be abandoned was the downtown Fresno trolley, which was quietly discontinued in August. Other dropped lines include Route 56, serving the Willow International Community College Center; Route 12 in southeast Fresno and Sunnyside, and Route 18, which served a southwest Fresno continuation school.
There still is minimal service in northwest Fresno north of Shaw -- just Route 45 on Herndon Avenue and Route 22 on West Avenue. To this day, no buses serve the area west of Highway 99 and north of Shaw Avenue, or east of Cedar Avenue and north of the California State University, Fresno, campus.
Free fares for riders 65 or older was another Measure C promise that was quickly implemented by FAX, and then dropped as the measure's sales tax revenues fell. Since January, older passengers pay 60 cents for a ride. Regular fares went from $1 to $1.25. Partly as a result, ridership is down 13% this year.
As for the future, FAX is betting heavily on a new "bus rapid transit" line that will serve Kings Canyon and Blackstone via downtown Fresno.
The system, scheduled to start construction in August 2013 and begin operation in November 2014, will feature larger "articulated" buses that bend in the middle, as well as dedicated bus lanes, light-rail-style stations, and traffic signals that allow buses to go ahead of other traffic.
If it comes to pass, the $48 million BRT line -- with $10 million in state funding and the rest from a federal grant -- will be a major change to the FAX system.
But it won't help Vidal Medina on his daily commute, which takes him from Cedar and Nees avenues to Fresno Street and Shields Avenue. For Medina and other FAX riders, the system still barely serves their needs.
"I don't know anybody who has a car who would take an hour and a half out of their day to ride the bus," he said.
He thinks Measure C should have made more of a difference than it has: "Five or six years later, you should have seen a change."