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Fresno City Hall optimistic about FAX, Bus Rapid Transit

ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Fresno is spending millions for new Fresno Area Express buses, replenishing a fleet that serves as the city’s main source of public transportation.

But once again controversy over BRT — Bus Rapid Transit — is stealing the show.

The City Council recently approved contracts totaling $63.6 million to buy dozens of new buses over the next five years. Most of the buses will replace vehicles past their prime but kept in service by necessity during the Great Recession.

Transportation Director Brian Marshall says more than half of the city’s fleet of 100-plus buses will be replaced by 2020.

“The fleet will become current, and a current fleet means fewer breakdowns and an easier ride for the passengers and the drivers,” Marshall says.

Most of the money will go for 40-foot buses, the standard length for Fresno Area Express (FAX) vehicles. Some money will go for 30-foot buses, whose nimbleness makes them perfect for older neighborhoods with tight turns.

The rest of the money could be spent on 60-foot buses. It’s here that the bus deal ran into a buzz saw named Clint Olivier, District 7’s council member.

A 60-foot bus means just one thing to Olivier: BRT as Ashley Swearengin originally wanted, not the scaled-down version of BRT that Olivier and his council allies ultimately forced on the mayor.

The result at the May 21 council meeting was a lively 15-minute debate on the future of BRT in Fresno. In the end, City Manager Bruce Rudd promised that the administration would get council permission before buying any 60-foot BRT buses. The trigger for such a recommendation would be increased ridership over a significant period, he said.

Let’s see:

▪ BRT is expected to go live in January 2017.

▪ Swearengin is termed out in January 2017.

▪ There’s no way to know if 60-foot buses are needed until well after January 2017.

▪ But the lame-duck administration in May 2015 still wanted council permission to buy 60-foot buses whenever it saw fit.

Confusing? It was for Olivier. He wondered if the administration was trying to pull a fast one, sneaking into the system the 60-foot buses that Swearengin wanted all along.

Nonsense, Rudd said. The deal simply secures far into the future a good price for 60-foot buses should Fresno ever need to buy, he said.

Olivier a day later remained puzzled.

“It’s a little bit suspect to me,” he said.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin said her original BRT plan was vital to improving Fresno’s quality of life.

Needing riders

One thing is certain: Fresno’s bus system needs help.

Ridership on FAX’s fixed-route service has declined from 17,589,425 in Fiscal Year 2010 (ending June 30) to 12,059,050 for Fiscal Year 2014, a drop of 31.4%. However, the decline was a modest 3.1% from 2013 to 2014, suggesting the trend may have reached its bottom.

Marshall thinks so. He was hired in spring 2014 after serving more than 20 years as a manager with the transit systems in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Chicago.

The economic downturn was devastating to FAX, Marshall says. The system didn’t have the money to keep enough buses in service. Customers at peak hours all too often found themselves staring at buses with no room. Disillusioned with FAX, people found other ways to get around.

“The issue is reliability,” Marshall says. “We have to prove ourselves to people who have walked away. We will prove ourselves. You will see a more customer-friendly and efficient system.”

Scheduling and routes will get an overhaul, Marshall says. The focus is on service, safety and cleanliness, he adds.

Marshall told the council BRT is a key to Fresno’s future. He predicted the system would be “wildly successful.”

Defining BRT

But what is BRT? The concept has changed over the years.

BRT began kicking around City Hall some 15 years ago, an era during which light rail was also on the city radar. Officials at every level of government wanted to get more Fresnans out of their cars.

A turning point came in early 2011 when President Barack Obama in his new budget set aside nearly $18 million to jump-start planning for BRT in Fresno.

The basic idea has hardly changed. The initial route would be L-shaped, starting at the River Park shopping centers at the north end of Blackstone Avenue, heading to downtown’s Courthouse Park, then east along Ventura Avenue and Kings Canyon Road.

Various features would reduce travel time and improve customer convenience. This would be a boon to faithful bus riders and a worthy incentive for those who longed to leave their car in the garage. More riders would mean more economic activity along the BRT route, something very much to the liking of a mayor pushing hard to re-energize Fresno’s older neighborhoods.

But one piece of the $50 million plan stood above the others — the 60-foot buses. They were articulated, meaning they bent in the middle. Fresno had never seen anything like these behemoths. Which, BRT supporters said, was precisely the point. BRT was to be revolutionary in style as well as form, something totally different from fuddy-duddy FAX.

The system even got its own brand — Q. “Travel with Q,” said a 2013 City Hall campaign. “Q is quick. Q is quality. Q is the answer.”

A different outcome

Everything changed within seven weeks in early 2014.

The City Council in January rejected on a 4-3 vote two BRT planning contracts. The majority (Lee Brand, Steve Brandau, Paul Caprioglio, Olivier) had faith in neither the vision or the finances of BRT as presented by Swearengin. This effectively killed BRT classic.

Swearengin came back in March with what Rudd would later call “BRT lite.” The 60-foot buses were gone. BRT would have new buses, but they would be 40-footers similar to those of FAX.

There were other tweaks. They were sufficient to gain council approval on a 6-1 vote (Brandau remained a skeptic). But BRT’s air of expectation went pfft.

Reinvigorating BRT falls on the shoulders of two people.

The first is Marshall. He says BRT will have modern, comfortable vehicles. Service for the most part will be at 10-minute intervals, compared to 20 minutes for FAX. BRT platforms will have ticket-vending machines and real-time information on bus arrivals/departures. Shelters will have canopies, lighting and Wifi.

Construction is expected to begin July 31.

The cost is unclear, though it almost certainly will be far below the original $50 million.

The second person on the spot is the next mayor. That politician, not Swearengin, gets BRT as a legacy.

The 2016 mayor’s race so far has only one announced candidate — Brand.

Brand says he promises to run BRT “on a cost-efficient basis.”

George Hostetter: (559) 441-6272, @GeorgeHostetter

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