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BRT & Downtown Experience Still Top of Mind In Fresno

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BRT & Downtown Experience Still Top of Mind In Fresno

Future of Downtown Fresno “experience” to be considered by Fresno City Council with discussion of BRT and cap-and-trade funds.

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The Fresno City Council on Thursday, Feb. 28, is slated to vote on more proposed deeds designed to improve the Downtown experience.

Whether council members treat them during debate in isolation or acknowledge them as a unified part of the city’s overall revitalization strategy remains to be seen. I hope it’s the latter. That’s because Downtown strategy keeps getting more challenging.

Let’s begin with a consent calendar item involving the Bus Rapid Transit system. Transportation Director Greg Barfield is asking the council to approve a change in the city’s deal with WSP USA, Inc., formerly Parsons Brinckeroff, Inc.

City Hall hired WSP in early 2014 to provide project management services for the BRT project. BRT is quite a project – a swift and consumer-friendly bus service along the Blackstone and Ventura/Kings Canyon corridors with capabilities of expansion into other high-volume FAX corridors. The original WSP contract was for nearly $1.5 million. BRT is up and running.

Much of BRT’s funding comes from the Federal Transit Administration. The hiring of a firm such as WSP was mandated by the feds. Barfield is asking for authority to pay WSP another $50,000 to put the finishing touches on the BRT project and keep the feds happy.

The key paragraph in Barfield’s report to the council includes this: “Technological challenges are preventing the acceptance of construction activities and the closing of the FTA grant agreement. Therefore, FAX seeks additional project management oversight support from WSP to satisfy grant reporting requirements to the FTA and closeout the grant.”

I didn’t find in the staff report an explanation of those “technological challenges.” The $50,000 would come from the FTA grant.

The Transportation Department has another item on the consent calendar. Barfield wants to hire the LeFlore Group, a consulting firm with expertise in the ways of the Federal Transit Administration. Barfield is asking for a maximum of $250,000 (to be paid by the FTA).

Barfield in his council report notes that the city has worked successfully with the LeFlore Group in the past.

Barfield’s report says: “The Department of Transportation/FAX has pursued an unprecedented number of capital projects that are expected to significantly improve service to its customers. These projects include Bust Rapid Transit (BRT), Downtown Bus Livability, Courthouse Park and Transit Center rehabilitations, and other capital projects totaling approximately $74,000,000. All of these projects utilize FTA funding and must comply with numerous federal mandates in areas of construction procurement, project management, and quality assurance. Not complying with these FTA requirements can result in loss of funding.”

Barfield in his report says the LeFlore Group “will also orchestrate a Transportation Department-wide compliance and quality assurance effort, which will focus on revamping processes to ensure federal guidelines are implemented Department-wide.”

FAX has been down this path of regulatory compliance before. It’s heading down this path again. What’s different this time is the presence of BRT. Everyone has high hopes that BRT will spur a significant change in how many Fresnans get around town. That, in turn, would spur a significant change in Fresno’s land-use patterns.

Finally, the council will consider several documents necessary for city officials to begin spending its $66.5 million cap-and-trade grant from the state. The grant’s official name is the 2017 Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) grant.

The report from Deputy City Manager Laura Merrill explains why Fresno got the grant: “Fresno has long faced challenges of environmental and socioeconomic disparity. Since the mid-twentieth century, suburban sprawl has consumed more than 100 square miles in the City leading to an economically distressed urban core and historic neighborhoods that contain some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the nation. In the more recent past, a combination of local leadership and sustained commitment to helping achieve the state’s climate goals has set the City on a different course. Fresno’s new General Plan and Zoning Ordinance, adopted in 2014 and 2016, respectively, direct approximately half of new growth to infill areas, along with large-scale transportation investments including the state’s first High-Speed Rail station, Bus Rapid Transit, and a $19 million redevelopment of Fulton Street. These infrastructure investments spurred the necessary momentum to begin constructing the package for TCC grant funding.”

The Transformative Climate Communities grant will help fund more than 20 projects. This list was crafted with considerable input from the public. Council members, should they choose to dig deep into their packet of information, can review the list.

There is an energy-savings program for single-family homes in Southwest Fresno. Nearly $2 million will build a first-class trail in Southwest Fresno. Sidewalks will be built in parts of Southwest Fresno as part of an active (i.e. leave your car at home) transportation plan. Nearly $1.5 million will be invested in a program to reduce food waste, thereby reducing hunger.

But it strikes me that much of the Transformative Climate Communities grant will be spent on projects that will be much dependent on a successful BRT system if the “transformative climate” mission is to be accomplished.

In particular, Chinatown is to get a big infusion of capital and official enthusiasm for several projects. I’m not saying Chinatown has nothing. I am saying Chinatown needs everything.

And the grant will help get a new Fresno City College satellite campus in Southwest Fresno off the ground.

The current BRT route doesn’t stop at any specific point in Chinatown. But Courthouse Park, BRT’s fulcrum, is just a short walk to the east. And I’m betting a successful BRT system would lead to pressure at the City Hall and the federal level to extend the service into Southwest Fresno. The FCC satellite campus site is on Church Avenue, between Walnut Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. The new Gaston Middle School is nearby. This area serves as one of several regional gateways to the Reverse Triangle, Fresno’s hottest generator of solid jobs.

For these reasons alone, it behooves council members to chew a bit in open session on the status of BRT and its pivotal role in providing logistical support for the Transformative Climate Communities grant’s $66.5 million.

There’s one other reason for doing so. A lot of these issues in one form or another have been percolating for years throughout City Hall’s policy-making and policy-implementing offices. And for about a decade there was the comforting assumption that the state’s bullet train would be built as planned. With this full-scale bullet train system, stretching from the Bay Area to the southernmost regions of Southern California, would be a world-renowned high-speed rail train station in Downtown Fresno.

It strikes me as unlikely that such a “transformative” train station would be built with taxpayer funds to serve a second rail service that moves people only between Merced and Bakersfield. Yet, that appears to be the new vision for the bullet train coming out of Sacramento.

Such a reduced vision could create a “domino” effect harmful to everything stated above.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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