Marek Warszawski

Canal project is meant to get people biking and walking. But there's been little momentum

The Midtown Trail was supposed be Fresno’s Class 1 bike trail

Part of the Fresno Midtown Trail bike path was intended for Shields near First Street but so far, it's still dirt and gravel.
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Part of the Fresno Midtown Trail bike path was intended for Shields near First Street but so far, it's still dirt and gravel.

Never promise, or even raise hopes, what you can't readily deliver.

Our local politicians and community leaders should heed this lesson more often. Otherwise, we end up in a situation like Fresno finds itself with the Midtown Trail.

Remember the Midtown Trail? In June 2016, on a sweltering afternoon, former Mayor Ashley Swearengin stood at a podium to announce the creation of a 7.1-mile bicycle and pedestrian pathway through central Fresno starting near the Manchester Center. Eventually, the Midtown Trail would connect with the Old Town Clovis Trail to form a 17-mile semi-circle friendly for both recreation and bike commuting.

Moreover, the Midtown Trail would only be step one of an ambitious plan that could radically transform transportation in Fresno. Instead of having to hop in our cars for every little errand, there would be a safe option for cycling and walking separated from traffic.

More choices. More freedom. Better health and fitness. Not to mention improved air quality.

"We’re finally providing the infrastructure that not only makes walking and biking more convenient, it also marks the opportunity for more transportation options that can make our community a healthier place to live," Swearengin said that day.

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Former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin speaks at a June 2016 press conference announcing the $9.5 million Midtown Trail, a 7.1-mile Class I bike path linking Blackstone Avenue to the Old Town Clovis Trail. FRESNO BEE FILE

Fresno City Councilmembers Paul Caprioglio and Steve Brandau were on hand. Brandau, not exactly known for his cycling advocacy, pledged to ride the entire length of the trail. Then-Clovis Mayor Nathan Magsig was also present, as were several key Fresno city staff members.

The ceremony was presented as a historic occasion. Except nearly two years later, the canal banks along Shields and McKinley avenues remain as they always were. Not a shovel of dirt has been upturned.

What's the hold up?

I've spent some time trying to answer that question. After doing so, I'm left with the impression the Midtown Trail, as well as several others utilizing Fresno's canal banks, will eventually get built. When? It's an open question.

Construction was slated to begin last fall. Except negotiations between the city and the Fresno Irrigation District, which owns the land where the Midtown Trail and other Class I bike paths will occupy, continue to drag on.

Both sides sound optimistic those issues will be resolved. When? Neither side is willing to say.

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This canal bank at Shields and First Street shows where the first part of the Midtown Trail was slated for construction during a June 2016 ribbon-cutting ceremony. As of March 2018, the bike path has yet to be constructed. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

"We've gone back and forth with the city, but I believe that we are the closest that we’ve ever been and am hoping that we get something done relatively soon," Fresno Irrigation District General Manager Gary Serrato said.

"We're very close," Fresno Director of Public Works Scott Mozier echoed. "Closer than we've ever been on this. We can see the finish line."

The main sticking point is liability. Specifically, if an injury occurs to someone riding the trail, and the trail's condition is thought to be a cause, would the irrigation district be liable for damages?

Trails advocate Mark Keppler, an attorney and executive director of Fresno State's Maddy Institute, says absolutely not. In fact, Keppler in 2014 asked the Legislative Counsel of California for an answer to this specific question.

The four-page letter Keppler got back, through then-Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, backs up that stance. It concludes: "It is our opinion that, under the Government Claims Act, a public entity that builds and maintains a bicycle and pedestrian trail on public land has absolute immunity from liability for an injury that is caused by a condition of the trail."

"The opinion is clear: If you maintain trails on canal banks it's absolute immunity," Keppler said. "They're like bike lanes."

But when presented with that material, Serrato disagreed with the conclusion.

"Our attorneys have reviewed everything that you’ve talked about in terms of being relieved liability, and I can tell you that’s absolutely not correct," Serrato said. "I know there are rulings that that have been brought to us, and from what our attorneys are telling us and what our insurers providers are saying that’s absolutely not correct."

Fresno would hardly be the first city in California to build bike paths on canal banks and levees. Bakersfield, Stockton and Santa Rosa all have them. Many cities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties have them. If it can be done elsewhere, why not here?

It's no secret that Fresno has a severe lack of park space and few areas accessible to only cyclists, pedestrians and joggers. And most of those that do exist are located north of Herndon Avenue. What we do have is a vast canal network that could be retrofitted for this purpose. Most of these canals. including the Midtown Trail, are in parts of the city that have been underserved.

I'm hardly the only one to recognize this. Keppler was among the first, and large parts of his vision were adopted by city in 2017 via what's called the Active Transportation Plan. The plan calls for an additional 947 miles of bike trails and lanes plus 661 miles of sidewalks. It also identifies a priority network (feasibly be built in the next 10 years) that includes 28 miles of Class I bike paths and 45 miles of sidewalks, at a cost $114.7 million.

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"It'll change the way Fresno looks, feels and its perception to the outside world," Keppler said. "It'll be a trail system unlike any other city. Trails could become our signature amenity."

Except it's hard to envision hundreds of miles of trails when we can't even build the initial half-mile segment along Shields Avenue between Fresno and First streets. Money isn't the issue. The city has the entire $9.5 million it needs to construct the entire Midtown Trail. It even has Measure C funding for operations and maintenance.

The city is 100 percent behind this vision, meaning the holdup is clearly on FID's end. I don't want to bash the district, because FID's primary mission is to deliver water to constituents via its canal system. Bike trails are secondary, and there clearly will be complications once people are using canal banks to recreate and commute. (Some do already, it must be pointed out.)

But this is a project that has the potential to vastly improve the quality of life around here. It can't be held up any longer.

City leaders, especially our former mayor, have some culpability too. Was it wise to hold a press conference launching the Midtown Trail before an agreement with FID was in the bag? Probably not.

Because instead of excitement over a project that could transform how Fresno recreates and commutes, we're left frustrated by the slow pace of progress.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

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