Sunday, April 20, 2014

No one noticed, but Fresno killed its proposed BRT system

Nashville, and the ludicrous attempts to ban bus rapid transit (BRT) there by state legislators, has been getting all the news lately, but it's not the only BRT system to see its future flushed down the toilet by short-sighted elected officials.

After two months of "retooling,"  the Fresno BRT project returned to the City Council a few weeks ago; problem is, there was no BRT left to approve.

Back in January, the Fresno city council put a temporary hold on the $50 million BRT plan which had been in the works since 2008. Even though the process had gone through dozens of public workshops, council presentations, and other forms of outreach, the council acted as if this was the first time they'd heard about it. I wrote about their "concerns"  here.

Was money the problem? It shouldn't have been. The feds, the state, and dedicated air quality funds were to pay for absolutely everything through a series of grants, including three years of operating costs. Getting someone to pay your transit operating costs is practically unheard of, and yet the Fresno Council decided to kick that golden egg in the face. The feds had already committed to $38 million in "small-starts" grants.

What was the problem? The tea party. As the current council president and tea party hero Steve Brandau stated in a newspaper editorial:

The feds and the state will pay for this bus with your tax dollars, but is that a good use of your money if we don't need the bus?

The BRT plan from the start was in reality BRT-lite, more like the "select bus service" found in NYC than real BRT found in Los Angeles (Orange Line), Pittsburgh, or Mexico City. No center-running (like the proposal in Nashville) or grade separation, just another bus in the rightmost lane.

Even though the two roads (Blackstone and Kings Canyon) the bus system was proposed to run on each have six lanes, space for parking, a wide median, AND run within half a mile of a parallel major freeway, apparently there wasn't enough space for an exclusive bus lane.

(In case you're curious, a look at Blackstone Avenue as a pedestrian).

While originally SOME bus lanes had been proposed, (20% of project length), they had been unceremoniously cut from the project a few months ago due to parking concerns. Yeah, in Fresno, where every lot has enormous parking required by code.

So last month, the plan was back in front of the council, and the Fresno Bee's incredibly misleading headline stated that the City Council approved the BRT plan.

Except in reality, the BRT plan was entirely cancelled. Thanks to shoddy reporting, no one noticed.

Here's what changed:

  • Exclusive bus lanes, ELIMINATED
  • Articulated (60-foot) buses, ELIMINATED
  • "Level boarding," ELIMINATED
  • Attractive stations (rather than a bench and a sign), ELIMINATED
  • 10-minute headways, SCALED BACK 
  • Off-board payment, PRESERVED 

Almost every single BRT feature has been completely removed to the project. The 10 minute frequency is what most other cities call "standard service," and not even that survived the attack. 

The removal of special stations is especially problematic. The original plan called for "stations" to be raised another couple inches from standard curb height, so boarding would be even easier. They would include attractive shelters and amenities. You know, a place for customers to wait in the 100 degree + Fresno heat, and an advertisement that bus service exists.

In the new plan? Fresno Bee reporter George Hostetter spins his magic about the wonder of the new plan: 

Bus stations would be portable, providing flexibility to meet new customer patterns.

Read more here:

That's right. A sign on a post with no amenities is a good thing because it provides the flexibility of stop elimination. The oil companies couldn't manage this kind of spin after a deep-water leak.

All these changes actually mean even more money now gets to be wasted. (Thanks Tea Party).  The project has been pushed back to December 2016 at the very earliest, and Parsons Brinckerhoff, who have been on the payroll since 2011, get another bundle of cash to run through the process again with these modifications. You can read the whole project scope here (PDF)

Let's take a closer look at the changes.

As mentioned previously, the bus lanes were all eliminated a few months ago because someone was concerned about parking. However, "queue jumper lanes" will remain at a grand total of five intersections.but only in the downtown core - where they're least needed.

The articulated buses actually went out to bid in 2011. That's because the BRT system was supposed to be on the streets this year. They were never purchased, and now by eliminating them, $7.5 million was cut from the project. Yay for the tea-party council member who was concerned abut the federal deficit. A slap in the face to customers forced to stand, or be bypassed by full buses.

However, the "BRT Branding" remains. Hooray, they'll be red or something.

Stations. By eliminating raised concrete at stations, and throwing away the fancy shelters (instead sticking with the useless ones the system has today), another $6 million was cut from the project. Nothign says BRT like a scorching metal bench and a sign on a pole. However, it looks like fare machines for off board payment are still part of the plan.

Headways. The current plan is for 10 minutes only during rush hours. The original plan was for all-day frequency.Here's what we're getting:

6:30am - 9:00am - 10 minutes
9:00am - 3:30pm - 15 minutes
3:30pm - 6:30pm - 10 minutes
6:30pm - 9:30*pm - 30 minutes

6:30am - 9:00pm* - 30 minutes

*Current service ends at 9:30pm. Unbelievably, nothing in the plan talks about extending service hours. However, that may be the case but not published. Even if service does extend later, what kind of BRT service runs every 30 minutes on weekends and after 6:30pm?

There is one slight upside. A council member (Paul Caprioglio), who originally fought the plan, did so because the buses wouldn't run through his district (just touch the edge). Why should they? BRT was picked based off the two busiest corridors in the city - his district has the third busiest. Rather than see BRT success elsewhere in the city, and then be expanded, he threw a tantrum and vowed to vote against BRT until it served his district.

So now he gets some service. Shaw will see a new express bus run through his district at the same headways as the other two lines. Same great features to, like no real shelters or articulated buses. Yes, Shaw needs better service, and much better headways (currently 30 minutes), but at the expense of routes that make more sense? Idiotic.

A special shout-out to Bruce Rudd, the city manager who is also the Director of DOT, because a city of over 500,000 people doesn't need a full time transportation guy. He has showed absolutely no interest in the transit system during his tenure, or  initiative in defending the 6 year long BRT process from idiotic attacks.

Fresno has been on a roll this year. The 50-year old pedestrian mall is getting ripped up, and now BRT is dead. I'm sure great things are in store for the general plan update. I started this blog because Fresno was making exciting changes to fix some of its many fundamental problems. It's a shame that apathy at the polls has resulted in a current leadership that's taking the city back to the past - making the same foolish decisions that put the city in the poor state it finds itself today.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Clovis Old Town Trail Missing Link to be Built this Summer

Mark your calendars for June! There's exciting news for fans of the most important trail in the Fresno area. I'm talking about the Sugarpine/Old Town Trail which runs from River Park in Fresno, up to Shepherd, down through Old Town Clovis, and then ends south of Sierra Vista Mall.

The trail has had a missing link through Old Town, where the old railroad was turned into a parking lot. In that section, the trail mysteriously vanishes, and trail users must find there way to the next section through a local street.

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While the local road isn't particularity problematic for experienced trail users, there is absolutely no way-finding signage. Those not familiar with the trail may assume it just ends there. There are also no intersection treatments, and lighting is poor.

This post has an on the ground perspective.

This summer, the gap will finally be filled. I had previously suggested a cycle-track along the road, which would be a cheap way to add infrastructure.

Clovis will essentially be building this proposal, but with a sidewalk extension, which puts cyclists on a different level from the road. That's even better.

The more permanent engineering is also the reason this project has been moving so slowly. Extending the sidewalk messes with drainage, and that means more engineering is needed. It also means digging, which will require utility relocation.

Here's what the plan looks like (it is not final, but don't expect many changes). North is to the right.

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As you can see, the treatment is almost the same as my beautiful MS Paint sketch above. Trail users will cross at the existing raised crosswalk, and then the sidewalk will be extended to the east.

 photo clovismiss3_zps7b9f9cdc.jpg

An interesting design treatment is a row of trees that has been proposed in the middle of the trail. This will help beautify the street and also work as a division between trail users going north and side.

The city has marked that they will be installing a ramp at the 4th Street intersection. I am glad to see this, as many of the intersections the trail goes through lack such a basic feature. In fact, when I talked to the city, they said they weren't sure about it. There should be no question about adding a ramp. Under California law, crosswalks exist at every T-intersection. Not installing a ramp isn't just a huge hassle for cyclists, wheelchair users and those with strollers - it's an ADA lawsuit I am confident the city would lose.

I've raised a concern that the proposed ramp looks way too narrow for comfortable bike usage, and the city promised to take a look at it.

The project also lacks lighting at the crosswalks on both ends, which is a serious omission, and a major safety concern. I have also asked the city to consider adding lights over the crosswalks as the area is very dark at night. 

On the northern end of the project, the trail will be extended on the north side of 3rd street. While the plan doesn't show it, a painted crosswalk is planned.

It will be exciting to see this project finally move forward this year. Construction is expected to start in June and proceed through the summer.