City Beat

February 3, 2014

Seven thoughts about Jan. 30 Fresno City Council meeting

City Beat

George Hostetter has his feet on the ground and his eyes on City Hall

The Fresno City Council meeting on Jan. 30 was one to remember. Here are seven thoughts:

* Things began shortly after lunch with the swearing-in of Kerri Donis as fire chief. The council chamber was packed. So, too, was the reception held outside the council chamber.

“I’m honored,” Donis said between the picture-taking.

Former Fire Chief Joel Aranaz and Congressman Jim Costa were there. So was former Fresno State Softball Coach Margie Wright. Donis batted cleanup for Wright in the late 1980s and 1990.

Wright now lives in Illinois.

“I couldn’t miss this — Fresno’s first female fire chief,” Wright said. “I always knew Kerri would do wonderful things. This is a great day for everybody.”

* Then the council tweaked the agenda.

Council Member Oliver Baines wanted to postpone the 5 p.m. hearing on Bus Rapid Transit for a few weeks. That’s when City Manager Bruce Rudd spoke up.

Give us 30 days, Rudd said, and we’ll come back with something that perhaps won’t be so divisive.

No, the council majority said, we’ll stay on schedule. After all, they said, lots of people have made plans to attend the 5 p.m. hearing. We can’t waste their time, the council majority said.

Rudd’s warning couldn’t have been more clear: If BRT fails, the administration will try again and everything said at the 5 p.m. hearing will have been for naught.

Rudd was ignored. The 5 p.m. hearing had 93 public speakers and ended after midnight. Mayor Ashley Swearengin at 1:15 a.m. Friday said she’d try again.

I’m betting there will be 193 public speakers at the next BRT hearing.

* Then Council President Steve Brandau, with only a tepid protest from Council Member Blong Xiong and Baines, decided to postpone the debate on a Measure C funding request.

Elliott Balch, the city’s downtown revitalization manager, wanted the council to pass a resolution authorizing him to submit an application for $1.8 million from Measure C’s Transit Oriented Development (TOD) program.

The Fresno Council of Government’s Policy Board would meet that night to consider the application, Balch said. We’re facing a tight deadline, he said.

The money would serve as the city’s matching funds as it drafts plans to do something with Fulton Mall. There are two main options on the table — return cars to the Fulton Corridor or modernize the pedestrian walkway.

Either way, Swearengin sees a revived Fulton Corridor in the same vein as BRT. Both are key pieces to reviving central Fresno, she says.

TOD and Fulton Mall issues come down the pike every month or so. They always cause heartburn between the council and the Administration.

Brandau said he’s not clear on the intricacies of TOD money. He said he needs a workshop before bringing Balch’s pivotal application to a vote.

Brandau got his way.

Then I saw Balch that night. I was standing outside the council chamber, taking a break from BRT comments.

Balch was all smiles. COG’s Policy Board had just approved the $1.8 million application.

I told Balch I thought the TOD application had gone up in smoke after Brandau’s maneuvering with the agenda. Well, Balch said, what could we do — the application was already in the pipeline.

It was my only laugh of the night.

* Some of Thursday’s public speakers bemoaned sprawl and praised BRT’s ability to end it forever.

Based on my talks with city officials, BRT can’t exist without distance — i.e. sprawl. The Federal Transit Administration wouldn’t be sending us a train full of money if the city’s 500,000 people were crammed into tiny 1945-era footprint.

If BRT works as promised, it’ll make sprawl a good idea.

Remember back in 1957? That was the era of Mr. and Mrs. Fresno and their three young kids. They lived near the corner of Belmont and Blackstone avenues. They had a few bucks in the bank. Mr. Fresno had a good job a short distance away in downtown. The kids were good students. Mrs. Fresno planned to get a job when the youngsters could care for themselves.

But Mr. and Mrs. Fresno weren’t optimistic about the future of their Belmont/Blackstone neighborhood. They headed to the suburbs, thanks to their foresight, savings, 1956 Dodge and the home-building of local developers.

They and their successors thrive to this day.

BRT, if the system works as its supporters promise, would provide the same life-changing mobility for today’s Mr. and Mrs. Fresno as that Dodge did for 1957’s suburbanites.

* Swearengin’s three council allies for BRT are Baines, Xiong and Sal Quintero. These same three moved heaven and earth last year to kill another of Swearengin’s key initiatives — outsourcing of the residential trash service.

One of the reasons BRT hit a roadblock last Thursday was concern with the system’s long-term finances. Fresno Area Express, the current bus service, always struggles financially. Most of its budget comes from federal and state grants, Measure C and fares. In the end, Rudd told the council, the general fund is the backstop for FAX or BRT.

The general fund has had to help FAX just once, Rudd said. But there’s no guarantee it couldn’t happen again.

BRT might have had smoother sailing last Thursday if Rudd had been able to soothe the financial worries by pointing to the $3 million a year the city was getting in fees for the outsourcing of home trash.

It would be a bitter pill to swallow for some nonprofits if their successful work to kill outsourcing ended up helping to kill the Bus Rapid Transit system they deem so important for Fresno’s poor.

* Stockton’s BRT system was praised by some at the meeting.

I called Paul Rapp on Monday. He is spokesman for the San Joaquin Regional Transit District, which runs the Stockton-area bus systems.

Rapp said Stockton’s BRT uses a special 40-foot bus with front and rear boarding. There is no special raised platform for BRT boarding. Wheelchair passengers board on a ramp that extends to the curb/sidewalk rather than by lift.

The system expects to get 60-foot buses this year.

Passengers in Stockton pre-pay. There are no traffic lanes reserved just for BRT. However, there’s a traffic-signal prioritization program that enables a BRT bus to do things like maintain a green light a few seconds longer to get through an intersection.

BRT in Stockton covers three corridors, each about five-and-a-half miles long. Bus stops are one to one-and-a-half miles apart. Buses come every 10 minutes at peak hours; 15 to 30 minutes in non-peak hours.

Rapp said BRT stops don’t have real-time information telling waiting customers where their bus is at that moment. He said the system doesn’t need it because of the law of averages (also called the Bell Curve).

When the BRT buses are running every 10 minutes, Rapp said, a few customers arrive at the stop as the bus pulls away. A few customers arrive as the bus arrives. The vast majority of customers arrive 4 to 6 minutes early.

That’s not much of a wait, Rapp said.

Rapp said Stockton’s BRT system improves each year. He said riders love BRT — it gets more than one million riders a year (45% of the entire transit system’s ridership).

The Stockton BRT is called Metro Express.

* Brandau ran an excellent meeting on Thursday. Emotions in the audience were high, but civility prevailed.

Brandau thanked everyone at the end of four straight hours of public comment. He led the seven council members in applauding the audience. Nice touch.

Several council members took a different road. Clint Olivier, apparently trying to channel Winston Churchill, snapped at several in the audience when they moaned at what they saw as unnecessary dramatics. Blong Xiong pretended to be was totally befuddled when anti-BRT speakers worried about Soviet-style central planning. Oliver Baines said comments from some anti-BRT speakers were so bizarre they must have come from the Twilight Zone.

Council Member Paul Caprioglio began his brief comments with a firm warning to his council colleagues. It’s never good to “mock” your fellow citizens, Caprioglio said. It’s never good to try to turn a council meeting into “a comedy hour,” he said. Elected officials who do these things could have a “chilling effect” on participatory government, he said.

“Cap,” as he’s sometimes called, spoke with wisdom.


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About George Hostetter


George Hostetter, a Fresno Bee reporter since 1987, knows Fresno and the trappings of its government from the top of his hat to the tip of his shoes, which he wears out with round trips between the office and City Hall. Twitter: @georgehostetter. Email George at or call him at 559-441-6272.

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