Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: After decades of lagging, Fresno has big chance to build trail network that rivals Clovis’

Last summer, after 13 years in the same house off the Figarden Loop in northwest Fresno, I moved across town. Way, way across. So far across that I ended up in Clovis.

It wasn’t because of schools, safety concerns or any affinity for cowboy statues and country music. There were two basic reasons: I wanted to get away from Highway 99 in advance of the high-speed rail construction nightmare, and I wanted to be closer to trails.

Yes, trails.

By “trails,” I don’t mean dirt paths in the mountains. For our purposes today, I’m talking about paved thoroughfares used by cyclists and pedestrians that run separately from the normal flow of traffic. (City planners commonly refer to these as “Class I” trails, whereas bike lanes like you see on most surface streets are “Class IIs.”)

Seven months since the move, my only regret is I didn’t do it sooner.

Sometimes in the morning, I’ll wake up early, hop on the bike and ride the Dry Creek Trail to Old Town Clovis for coffee and pancakes.

Sometimes in the afternoon, when not chained to the keyboard, I’ll take the Sugar Pine Trail out to Woodward Park, then follow the Eaton Trail north to the River Center and return via Copper and Willow avenues.

Sometimes at night, just to clear my head, I’ll affix a front headlight and rear taillight and go for an easy cruise along the Enterprise Trail and listen to crickets.

Know what I’ve discovered? There are others who enjoy doing the same thing.

I see fellow cyclists, men, women, teenagers and children of all ages and ethnicities. Some pedal solo like myself; others in packs. I see people walking, some out for a casual stroll and others who pump their arms and legs with purpose. I see runners, everyone from chunky joggers wearing baggy sweats to chiseled athletes in Lycra listening to headphones.

When these folks and I cross paths, a curious thing happens. That person will smile or wave, and I’ll find myself smiling or waving back. It happens naturally. If we’re together waiting at a stoplight, a pleasant word or two may be exchanged.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the cumulative effect of all this. Yes, it’s good exercise. But without even realizing it, I’m also forming stronger connections to the people and place where I live.

Tell me, when was the last time you smiled, or made a friendly gesture, to the stranger in an adjacent car?

“Trails help create a greater sense of community,” agreed local trails advocate Mark Keppler. “They help people care about things beyond their front yards and gated communities.”

A Fresno State business professor, Keppler was a driving force behind the Sugar Pine/Old Town Clovis Trail. Utilizing an abandoned railway line, the 15-mile route begins at River Park and heads along Shepherd Avenue before turning south until it dead ends near Clovis and Shields avenues.

Take a look at our trail network on Google Maps, and you’ll notice a common theme: With one exception (the McKenzie Trail in southeast Fresno), they’re all located in either north Fresno or Clovis.

There’s a simple reason: Throughout Fresno’s northward expansion that began in the 1950s, carving out space for anything besides houses and strip malls was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Not anymore. Trails are suddenly a big topic in Fresno, with Mayor Ashley Swearengin among those leading the charge.

How serious is the mayor about expanding Fresno’s trail network? Last week, I emailed her at 8 p.m. requesting an interview on the subject. She replied later that night.

“Trails are a big priority for me,” Swearengin says. “You can’t drive on a Saturday afternoon through Fresno and into Clovis and not see the difference.

“Where there are trails built, they are heavily used,” she adds, emphasizing the last two words. “Trails create a higher quality of life for those who have access to them.”

In 2010, Fresno adopted a Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Trails Master Plan that included creating a new trail network out of the city’s canal banks. (The plan is currently being updated.) It was an excellent idea — there are nearly 200 miles of potential trails on the city’s canals — but one that hasn’t gone anywhere for two reasons. One was a concern over liability, and the other had to do with money. Although there are numerous federal and state grants available to construct new trails, Fresno didn’t have any way to maintain them.

Now both hurdles have been cleared or significantly reduced.

Last month, the California Legislative Counsel issued a legal ruling stating that municipalities that build and maintain trails on public land have absolute legal immunity from injuries that occur on those trails. Meaning if someone falls and breaks their leg on a canal bank, neither the city nor irrigation district can be sued.

In addition, Fresno County’s transportation tax, Measure C, was recently amended so that some of those tax dollars can now be used for upkeep of existing trails with the stipulation that other funds are found to construct new ones.

With $55 million in the kitty, advocates like Keppler are dreaming big.

“Think what this community would be like if we had 200 miles of landscaped linear parks linking areas in Fresno and Clovis,” he said. “It would be a completely different place to live. Trails could become our signature amenity.”

Fresno’s first converted canal bank is expected to be a half-mile segment running along Shields Avenue between Fresno and First streets. Construction could begin by early next year, according to Fresno Public Works Director Scott Mozier. Why was that location picked for the pilot trail? Because the canal in that area is nice and wide, with an existing right of way. Also no houses abut the canal in that area, and Shields is a heavily traveled street.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Mozier says.

Swearengin estimates that it will take 20 years to build out Fresno’s trail system, and she has less than two remaining on her term as mayor. Her hope is to get things moving in the right direction before passing the baton to her successor.

“I really want to get the momentum going on this,” she says.

Look, I’m no social engineer or bike nazi. This isn’t my attempt to get anyone to kick their car habit by appealing to some lofty civic ideals. If you feel like driving three blocks for a cherry Slurpee, great. Get me one, too.

Across large swaths of Fresno, there’s no other option except to turn on the ignition. It just doesn’t have to be that way.

“My attitude is if you have to drive everywhere that’s dependence, not independence,” Keppler says. “For true independence you need to have a choice.”

I, for one, am thankful to have that choice. So if you see me coming on a trail, just smile or wave. I’ll smile or wave back.