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From the inside, how Fresno’s Midtown Trail project happened

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From the inside, how Fresno’s Midtown Trail project happened

Thank you for your recent article on the Fresno-Clovis Midtown Trail project.

I appreciated the many good points you mentioned about the project – I certainly agree that it is a “jewel all to itself.”

It appeared, however, from some of your remarks that you were not able to obtain all the relevant information. As a result, I wanted to provide some additional info for you so you can more fully understand this project.

When the politicians and city administrators spoke of this project being “creative” or “complicated” they were using shorthand for how we were able to pull this major project off in just 30 months (after others have been talking about trails on canal banks for 30+ years!).

SEE ALSO: Hostetter reflects on Keppler’s note and the Midtown Trails project

By way of context, about two and a half years ago, (fall of 2013) Mayor Swearengin told me that she wanted to begin to implement the “Master Urban Parkway Plan” (a plan that I proposed back in 2000 to convert about 200 miles of canal banks into linear parks/trails as we were completing the Fresno Sugar Pine and Clovis Old Town Trails and asking “where do we go from here?”). She asked that I take the lead. It became apparent quickly that there were three roadblocks to completing the project: (1) liability, (2) maintenance and (3) funding.

First, regarding liability….In late 2013, early 2014, started looking into the liability issues. Even though my reading of State law (I am a lawyer) was that there was already absolute immunity for recreational trails , I spoke with Asm (Assembly Member Henry T.) Perea’s and Asm (Assembly Member Jim) Patterson’s offices to see if we could further push the point by getting State legislation to clearly absolve the cities and county of any liability for trails along canal banks. Legislative committee counsel, however, agreed with me that State law already provided absolute immunity and we really didn’t need new legislation. As a result, I asked Asm Perea’s Office to make an official request of the California Legislative Counsel for an official opinion letter on that issue. They issued the attached letter on April 4, 2014, agreeing that government entities enjoy absolute immunity regarding trails (the analogy is a bike lane on a street–if a cyclist is injured the city is not liable). Everyone (city, FID [Fresno Irrigation District], etc.) was satisfied that this resolved the issue of liability.

Second, regarding maintenance…This has always been a major sticking point. As a member of the Measure C Steering Committee, I wrote the Trails Section of Measure C to force jurisdictions to use the money to build new trails–not just maintain existing trails. I was concerned that cities would simply use the new Measure C Trails money as backfill for their Parks budgets–and never build any new trails. To my disappointment, even though money was accumulating in the Measure C Trails Account to build new trails, there was a strong hesitancy to build new trails without a guarantee of new maintenance dollars from some source. As a result, I got together with former Clovis Planning Director John Wright (who has been a key person in this project and really started the trail effort in Clovis) and we drafted a proposed amendment to the Measure C Trails section allowing some Measure C Trails money to be used for maintenance if that money was matched — on a 5 to 1 basis — with outside (federal, state, regional, other local) dollars to build new trails. In short, cities could use some Measure C trail money for maintenance, if they went out and found five times that amount of money from other sources to build new trails. As the Measure C Trails Advocate, I believed a 5 to 1 return on investment was a great deal–and by leveraging Measure C Trails money, we could dramatically expand the money available to build new trails. We received either unanimous or super-majority support for this amendment throughout the amendment process (set up by Measure C to allow for necessary changes during the life of the 20 year measure). That resolved the maintenance issues.

Third, regarding funding…While some money existed in the City of Fresno’s Trail Account, we were proposing to connect Clovis Avenue and Manchester Center, a very ambitious project, that would probably take about $9 (million) to build. As a result, we went about figuring out how to pay for it. Initially, the City thought it could be paid for as follows:

  • $400,000 in existing City of Fresno Measure C Trail funds
  • $1.8 million might come from CMAQ/ATP funds (powerpoint slides 10 – 14, attached).
  • $7.3 million in an advance from Measure C Rail Consolidation funds

As a member of the CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality improvement program) Committee (elected by COG [Council of Governments] members to be the trails representative), I was able to convince other committee member of the value/significance of this project. As a result, $4.3 million was allocated from CMAQ funds. Consequently, that additional $2.5 million from CMAQ, together with a cost savings of $200,000 by getting this project done sooner, cut our Measure C “advance” down to $4.6 million (i.e., $7.3 million – ($2.5 million from CMAQ + $200,000 in savings).

Regarding the “advance,” you should note that: (1) it has been approved repeatedly by super-majority votes throughout the amendment process, (2) the money is going to be paid back with interest (with Fresno’s annual Measure C trail allocation of a little over $1 million…see, slide 14) in four years — well before it will ever be needed for grade separated crossings (the fall back use of rail consolidation dollars–in mid 2020s), (3) any other jurisdiction could make the same request if they followed the same conditions. And, as noted earlier, building this project sooner rather than later means it will be less expensive.

So some key points:

  • This has nothing to do with the Parks budget currently being discussed. This money is from CMAQ and Measure C.
  • This is an effort to expand the trail south — not north. Indeed, the Mayor is allocating 100% of Measure C Trail money for the next four years to this project. The keys were connectivity and continuing to push the trail south–not north as you implied in your article.
  • This is a major addition/improvement to the quality of life (and, yes, transportation system) in a long-neglected part of our community

In sum, big projects are “complicated” and require “creative” thinking – and a group effort – if they are ever to be completed.

I am very proud of the fact that this is exactly what happened here.

After reviewing all the facts, I hope folks will agree that this is a major accomplishment and should be celebrated by our community.

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Mark Keppler

Mark Keppler is the Executive Director of the Maddy Institute at Fresno State.

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