Bill McEwen

Will bullet train bail out Fresno’s boulevard to nowhere?

High-speed rail begins work on Fresno Trench near downtown

California High-Speed Rail Authority construction engineer talks about the work that is being done on the Fresno Trench, which will take the high-speed rail tracks under Highway 180, the Dry Creek canal and a freight railroad line near downtown Fr
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California High-Speed Rail Authority construction engineer talks about the work that is being done on the Fresno Trench, which will take the high-speed rail tracks under Highway 180, the Dry Creek canal and a freight railroad line near downtown Fr

One of the great beauties of life – and journalism – is the unexpected. That’s what I got Wednesday night.

Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau held a town hall on the status of Veterans Boulevard. The boulevard has been on the books since 1984 but has never been built out, forcing tens of thousands of people who live in north Fresno west of Highway 99 to endure long delays because of traffic congestion and trains that simply stop on the tracks for 20 minutes or more.

I’ve written about the Veterans Boulevard snafu in the past and I’ve ranted about City Hall’s glaring failure to properly plan this area.

Nothing fits together there. The streets are inadequate. There are few places to shop. The closest police substation is many miles east of the highway and the railroad tracks at Hughes and Dakota avenues. The closest fire crews operate out of a house near the corner of Bullard and Grantland avenues.

 

I went to the meeting for an update on Veterans Boulevard – would the much-needed overpass finally be built? I also wanted to see how Brandau would handle the fact that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is kicking in $28 million for a complicated project estimated to cost $144 million.

Brandau, you might remember, opposes the high-speed rail project. He even put up billboards in 2015 that urged Gov. Brown to divert high-speed rail funding to dam construction.

I wanted to ask Brandau about that, and possibly see him squirm. He did, but was ready with a solid answer: “I have to shrug my shoulders and tell high-speed rail thanks for the help.”

But, in writing this, I’ve committed the cardinal sin of burying the news. The meeting attracted a beyond-capacity crowd to the Herndon-Barstow Elementary School cafeteria, most of them to voice frustration with the bad results imposed on them by a City Hall that long genuflected to the wishes of Fresno’s residential developers.

Developer influence explains why this part of town does not have streets capable of handing the traffic. Or overpasses that carry people up and above the busy 99 and the railroad tracks. Or timely police response. Or fire crews that have a proper fire station. Or parks and walking/cycling trails. Or more-convenient shopping. Good planning is an art.

Bill McEwen

Developer influence explains why this part of town does not have streets capable of handing the traffic. Or overpasses that carry people up and above the busy 99 and the railroad tracks. Or timely police response. Or fire crews that have a proper fire station. Or parks and walking/cycling trails. Or more-convenient shopping.

Good planning is an art. When you live in a neighborhood that has it, you might not even recognize it. You take it for granted that there will be sufficient parking and you needn’t park in somebody’s field or at a church 200 yards down the street. You don’t expect it to take a half an hour to pick up a carton of milk.

After World War II and through the early 2000s, Fresno’s mayors and a supermajority of City Council members didn’t give a thought to any of that. All they knew was that developers gave wads of cash to their election campaigns and they best keep developers happy.

Much of this was documented in the federal Operation Rezone convictions and stories in The Bee. Many of the bad guys got caught. Some of them ratted out others and stayed out of the headlines – and prison.

But even after Operation Rezone wrapped up, City Hall kept on giving developers want they wanted: unchecked freedom to buy cheap land on the fringes and build homes there while paying cut-rate “fees” that didn’t begin to fund the needed infrastructure. City Hall’s attitude was, buyer beware and we’ll worry about the rest later.

In reality, the developers shaped and planned Fresno to maximize their profits. The professionals in the planning department, many of them talented and eager to see Fresno prosper and grow the right way, were ignored.

Bruce Rudd started with the city in the mid-1970s rebuilding bus engines. He rose through the ranks by working hard, solving problems and treating people fairly. Four years ago, this blue-collar guy got the top white-collar job: city manager.

He is a darn good one. He also has three months until retirement. When you’re a short-timer, you tend to tell it the way it is. Or was. Rudd attended the meeting Wednesday. Here is what he told the crowd about why this part of the Fresno is mired in quality-of-life hassles:

“We got ahead of our skis. We were under pressure by developers to allow development to occur. These problems were created by us not planning for the future. and shame on us.”

Rudd is a stand-up person. For most of his 40-plus years with the city, he was not in a position to stop the corruption. His job was to keep the buses running. Later on, it was to keep the buses running on time.

The collective “we” he talks about is what Alan Autry and Ashley Swearengin inherited as mayors. Autry tried to do things right, and had some success. But it was Swearengin – backed by a righteous City Council – who stopped developers from calling the shots. Together they passed the 2035 General Plan that, if followed, will make Fresno a better place to live for the vast majority of residents.

Now it’s Mayor Lee Brand’s job to continue the clean-up and make sure that Fresno never returns to those dark days when developers spouted off about letting “the market” dictate where the city grows – all the while putting their thumbs on the scale to tilt the market in their favor.

As for Veterans Boulevard, the government agencies involved in its construction still need $44 million to see it completed. That represents progress. The shortfall was $85 million a couple of years ago. Brandau and others will fly this month to Washington, D.C., on the annual “One Voice” lobbying trip in hopes of convincing the Trump administration to kick in the rest.

They should be able to make the case for this project, which will help the entire region and not just those people close to Highway 99. It helps that local and state taxpayers have already contributed significantly to the effort.

As for Brandau, a tea party member who often rails against government and champions the virtues of letting the market decide the path of growth, I got the sense that his constituents’ complaints and Rudd’s truth-telling might figure into his future decision-making.

The reality, Rudd explained, is that 9,700 approved lots in this area are undeveloped. They were “entitled” long ago in the era of cheap fees – fees that remain in effect for those lots and pose future headaches.

I asked Brandau for his final thoughts about the meeting.

“These problems are what you get when you grow past your infrastructure.”

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