The future of Fresno’s FAX-Q bus rapid transit line along Blackstone Avenue promises faster and more environmentally friendly bus service. But in the present, it’s providing a few headaches for merchants and motorists.
A 3 1/2 -mile stretch of Blackstone, from the Villagio and River Park shopping centers on the north to Ashlan Avenue, features blocked-off lanes where crews are tearing out pavement and building new BRT bus-stop pads, plus a prohibition on U-turns at major intersections during construction.
It’s the second of four phases in the construction of a 16-mile line along Blackstone from north Fresno to downtown Fresno and along Ventura Avenue/Kings Canyon Road to southeast Fresno.
BRT differs from the regular FAX transit bus system because it will include fewer stops and less time between buses during peak periods – which translates to faster and more convenient rides. The buses also will be packing equipment that gives them priority at traffic signals.
They say they’re making Blackstone better, but I think they’re making it worse right now.
Jass Singh, manager of an Arco AM/PM at Sierra and Blackstone avenues
Before that happens, however, drivers in the right-hand lane on either side of Blackstone have to dodge occasional lane closures, and those who aren’t paying attention might miss the driveway entrance to their destination and have to go around the block to make another try – or simply continue down the street to the next business.
That’s what Jass Singh, manager of an Arco AM/PM gas station and convenience store at Blackstone and Sierra avenues, thinks is happening to his business. Unlike shopping centers with multiple driveways into their parking lots, Singh’s store has only one driveway off Blackstone – and the bus stop construction and concrete traffic barriers run right to the edge of that driveway, forcing drivers to make a sudden right turn if they want to top off their tank or pick up a Slim Jim sausage snack.
“The people from the city, they said it would take three or four weeks, but it’s been about two months,” said Singh, gesturing toward the front window and the construction crews on the street during the noon hour Wednesday. Normally, he said, that would be a busy time, but there were no cars at any of his gas pumps. “I’m losing a lot of business; I’ve never seen my parking lot this empty,” he said.
“They say they’re making Blackstone better, but I think they’re making it worse right now,” Singh added.
About a half-mile down the street, the beauty salon J.S. & Co. is tucked into a shopping center anchored by a big-box office-supply store and a mattress showroom. There, co-owners Charlene Rodgers and Mona Cianetti said the work on the street has been a problem for some of their older clients.
“It’s kept some of our customers from getting in,” Rodgers said. “It’s been really inconvenient, but most of our customers manage to get here.”
“We’re fortunate because we have two driveways here,” Cianetti said. But the work is taking place near the southernmost driveway – the most direct route to the shop, “and it can be confusing for our older people.”
“What I don’t understand is why not just do them one or two at a time?” instead of tying up several miles of Blackstone with the work, Rodgers said.
At Shaw and Blackstone avenues, a barber named Eddie at the World Hairstylist shop said the work is hurting businesses there. “What I’m worried about is what’s going to happen on Black Friday,” he said, noting that Blackstone Avenue is likely to be even more clogged by holiday shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.
“It’s already backed up with all of this going on,” he added, waving his arm at the blocked-off lane near the main driveway into the center.
Merchants in other centers with two or more driveways say they’ve seen few, if any, effects on their business, save for employees and customers not being able to make their usual U-turns at the major signal-controlled intersections.
So what are these crews doing, anyway?
“Right now what we’re seeing is the ‘flatwork’: bus pads, foundations for the new bus stations, and running all the data lines” to serve the bus stops, said Brian Marshall, the city’s transportation director.
It’s a little tough on businesses for a period of time; we get that. But in the long term, these places will benefit from a much-improved streetscape.
Brian Marshall, city of Fresno director of transportation
Eventually, 51 modern bus stations will go up, where passengers will board new low-emission, natural gas-fueled buses. The new system is expected to become operational in November 2017. FAX – shorthand for Fresno Area Express – will market the BRT line as FAX-Q, with the Q standing for “quick” and “quality.”
The first section of Blackstone where the new BRT bus stops were built, through central Fresno, was completed earlier this year. And the suffering should be over soon for the northernmost businesses where work is going on now.
“In Phase 2, we have a commitment to being out of there – to have (new stops at) El Paso and Herndon avenues complete by Black Friday,” Marshall said. “We understand the value of being business-friendly.”
“It’s a little tough on businesses for a period of time; we get that,” he said. “But in the long term, these places will benefit from a much improved streetscape.”
The next phase of bus-stop construction – where drivers and businesses can expect some traffic congestion – is from Belmont Avenue into downtown Fresno to Ventura and First streets, and will likely begin in January and continue through March. And the final stage, down Ventura and Kings Canyon Road from Sixth Street to Clovis Avenue, is expected to follow and last into the summer.
“In the meantime, we’ll remodel the Manchester Center transit center, and that will be from January through about June or July,” Marshall said. Construction of a Courthouse Park bus center at Van Ness Avenue and the Mariposa Mall will be on approximately the same timetable.
The construction is expected to cost about $30 million by the end of the 2016-17 fiscal year in June. The cost of the entire BRT project, including new vehicles, stations and equipment, is pegged at more than $54 million.