To fix Fresno’s bad roads, the City Council must cool the rhetoric and be leaders

What road work looks like when it happens.
What road work looks like when it happens. Fresno Bee file

Here’s an assignment for the Fresno City Council: Board a bus with Mayor Lee Brand for a citywide tour. Mission: Inspect the condition of roads throughout the city and figure out how to fix them. Pack a brown-bag lunch, as this may take a while.

The state of Fresno’s roads became a topic of conversation among council members this past week, one that quickly blew up into an exchange of strong words. Councilman Nelson Esparza called a road improvement plan put forth by Brand, which aimed at rough equality in spending, a “slap in the face” of his constituents. “The roads and infrastructure in my district are among the worst shape in the city,” he said in a statement.

Three other council members — Miguel Arias, Esmeralda Soria and Luis Chavez — held a news conference to say streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure were also in horrible shape in their districts south of Shaw Avenue, and they called on a spending plan based more on need, rather than equal spending.

In turn, that prompted north Fresno councilmen Garry Bredefeld and Steve Brandau to accuse the four of wrongly politicizing road repairs. Bredefeld accused Arias of being a “social justice warrior” and turning the usually calm discussion about roads into “class warfare.” In particular, Bredefeld was angry that money generated by gas taxes paid by drivers throughout the city would be unequally spent, with more going to the southern districts and less into north Fresno projects.

Brandau did not help matters with hyperbolic language when he said the new majority would be “pillaging” the city’s budget for their own purposes.

Realizing the trouble, Brand pulled the roadwork plan from Thursday’s council agenda. Instead, he will meet with council members in groups of three to share his proposals for rebuilding roads. Time is of the essence: The city must say by May 1 how it plans to use the gas tax money.

The exchange laid bare the north of Shaw-south of Shaw divide that exists in Fresno. And it brought into focus the debate over spending money on an equal basis citywide, or more in an equity basis where the needs are greatest, wherever that may be.

Lest this seem to be some silly council tiff, the stakes in this battle are high. Fresno is a revenue-poor city, so the chance for new money to fix roads is valuable. The mayor and council are determining how to best allocate $12 million from the gas tax. The deferred road maintenance total in the city has ballooned to $600 million.

Arias points to places in his southwest Fresno District 3 like Muir Elementary, located at Palm and Dennett avenues. While a sidewalk encircles the campus, some streets leading to the school lack sidewalks, so children have to walk in the roadway en route, putting them close to cars.

Bredefeld points to the horrible condition of a section of Nees Avenue in his district. It lies between First Street and Millbrook Avenue. Fire Department officials tell Bredefeld their trucks take a beating whenever they head out from Fire Station 13.

That project was slated on Brand’s list to get the largest chunk of funding, at $800,000. But the biggest slices of the budget pie were allocated to Arias, Soria and Chavez.

The legislation that set up the gas tax, Senate Bill 1, allows local governments to decide how to prioritize their dollars, as long as the money goes toward road maintenance and rehabilitation, improving safety, completing bike lanes and sidewalks, adding traffic signals and railroad track separations.

While spending equally seems to be the wisest approach, the fact is inequality exists in Fresno. The city south of Shaw has suffered from neglect over a long period. Neighborhoods north of Shaw are newer, as that is where city leaders havedirected Fresno’s growth, so infrastructure there is not as rundown.

So spending on the basis of greatest need makes sense. That means that council members must be committed to representing all of the city, not just their district. And, in fact, they function in that mode most of the time. Both Bredefeld and Brandau have, over their terms, backed projects that were slated for south of Shaw. (Brandau’s last day on the council was Thursday; he moves to the county Board of Supervisors). Soria has done the same for proposals north of Shaw, and Esparza and Arias have started out that way, too.

The main question before the council every day is, what will make Fresno better? That must be the guiding principle.

Back to the hypothetical bus. If the council members actually tried that exercise (after public notice of the tour, of course), they’d be stuck together for some time — and would likely realize they all want a better Fresno. If they were not allowed off the bus until they reached consensus, they’d draw up the list of road priorities to take advantage of the tax revenues.

The council members would act as leaders, and Fresnans would be the winners.