The reform of Fresno Area Express began Saturday. It turned out to be a modest start for a big challenge.
About 25 members of the public along with assorted consultants and FAX officials met for two hours in Fresno City College’s beautiful Old Administration Building to chew on the city’s tired and troubled public transit system.
I was among the participants.
“Let’s see what we would do if we built the system today,” said FAX senior regional planner Jeff Long.
No one expected firm answers on this day. City Hall is holding community meetings throughout the week (plus one on Dec. 6 in Pinedale) to get grassroots input on FAX’s future. The City College confab was the first.
The long-awaited Bus Rapid Transit system goes active in early 2018. FAX ridership has dropped by nearly half in the past decade.
That kind of operational contrast begs for a frank appraisal of FAX.
Saturday’s meeting was first class. One wall in the second-story meeting room was lined with informative displays of FAX services and the demographic nature of the FAX customer base. There was a map of the FAX system; participants used Post-it notes to express thoughts about specific routes. We used a hand-held clicker to do an instantaneous group survey of likes/dislikes about FAX.
So, where is FAX headed?
No one came right out and said as much, but I sense the administration of Mayor Lee Brand will eventually present the City Council with two choices.
1.) You can have a public transit system that covers most of Fresno, but does so thinly in many neighborhoods and less than optimally in key neighborhoods – the coverage scenario.
2.) You can have a public transit system that concentrates its scarce assets in strategic parts of the city and leaves secondary theaters largely on their own – the ridership scenario.
I’m guessing the Mayor opts for No. 2.
City Hall has hired VRPA Technologies to serve as a consultant during this restructure study. Richard Lee, the firm’s director of innovation and sustainability, cut to the chase when it comes to transportation logistics in a big city.
“It would be nice to have a bus for everyone who need its,” Lee said. “But that’s not possible.”
Fresno might have come fairly close to that goal in the first years after World War II when the city covered a much smaller footprint. Then we grew and grew in both population and area. Political pressure on a variety of fronts pushed a cash-strapped City Hall to provide FAX service to nearly every corner of an expanding Fresno.
We reinforced defeat.
One of the displays at Saturday’s meeting showed the distribution of Fresno’s non-white population. To no one’s surprise, minorities are largely in Central, Southwest and Southeast Fresno. That’s where residential densities are highest.
Another display noted that a “major” change to FAX’s schedule would require (by law) a major service change study, a disparate impact study and a disproportionate burden study.
I live near Bullard High School. I walked to City Hall one day in late October. My route home took me north on San Pablo Avenue. I was a short distance north of the Ted C. Wills Community Center (near Downtown) when I came to a stop for Bus No. 22. A woman in a wheelchair was waiting there.
No. 22 pulled over. The driver got out. She told the woman that, unfortunately, the bus already had its limit of wheelchair passengers. There was no room for another wheelchair. The driver was kind but firm.
No. 22 took off. I chatted briefly with the woman. She said she lived near the Tower Theatre. She said this wasn’t the first time she had been left stranded by circumstances. She was resigned, not bitter.
I sometimes walk around my home block at night. I occasionally see FAX bus No. 26 heading north on Palm Avenue toward the bright lights of Palm Bluffs. I occasionally see No. 26 heading south on Palm, returning from Palm Bluffs. No. 26 is almost always empty other than the driver.
In the military, reinforcing defeat is bad policy.