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.

18 Replies to “No one noticed, but Fresno killed its proposed BRT system”

  1. Thanks for the intelligent insight on the Fresno BRT. I am disgusted at the lack of foresight and understanding Fresno elected officials have shown here with their decision to kill BRT. I hope there are political consequences for their elitist short-sighted mindset.

  2. I was at the City Coucli meetting when they voted on this issue. The outcome totally doesn't surprise me. This city has a small town mentality and thats y Fresno will never progress as other citys will. Bakersfield is KILLInG us in terms of prgressive thinking and planning for the future. Fresnos' BRT will be a JOKE.

    1. I wouldnt hold up Bakersfield, and their plan to push a new freeway through an existing neighborhood to encourage sprawl, as a model.

      Fresno already did that with the 180.

    2. A small-town mentality without any of the actual nice attributes of an actual small town… ><

      How on earth did the U.S. manage to screw itself up so comprehensively…?

  3. Wow, seeing the hoops and hurdles other cities are going through with their BRT projects makes me thankful that the sbX Green Line ("E St. Corridor"), which is set to officially open on Monday, actually got approved and built. Even if it has a few flaws (I'm not sure it'd even make Bronze on the official BRT scorecard, for example), it still includes enough features of a true BRT system to make a difference. Certainly, it has seen plenty of detractors and naysayers. Misinformation abounded, with even mayoral candidates questioning center stations as "accidents waiting to happen" and beleaguered businesses all scapegoating the construction. Nonetheless, the project has continued largely intact. Dedicated lanes, actual stations, 10 minute headway, etc. are all planned for day one; all the details are here: Other improvements will come over time as this is planned to be the first of an entire regional system of BRT (summary here: Good luck to you guys, though the Feds, AQMD, etc. should step in and demand that there be actually be more BRT features or they're going to pull out their funds from the project.

    1. As much as it hurts, you guys should definitely write all funders to pull their funding unless true BRT features return to the design. Perhaps the recency is the reason they've yet to make it known to the City that the proposed changes would disqualify the eligibility of the project for the funds? After all, they made sure that Cincinnati know under no uncertain terms that their streetcar money wasn't able to be redirected however the City felt like if the streetcar project was cancelled. It seems that the Fresno BRT project is also cancelled since it lacks any actual BRT, so the funding sources should send the same message to Fresno. Which will be interesting to see considering the latest CalEnviroScreen results showing Fresno as having some of the worst communities in the state.

  4. No bus lanes and no stations w/ level boarding? That's not BRT at all, that's just a set of new buses. Rally the forces, I don't think it'll be hard to find any number of willing plaintiffs to bring the lawsuits against the City that are about to stack up. Which the City WILL lose and which will almost certainly end up costing taxpayers far more in (losing) legal fees than it would've cost to implement the original BRT in the first place. To say nothing of the lost grants. While they're at it, sue the developer of that evaporation pond.

  5. I'm not sure why you should feel such an affinity towards Nashville's BRT fight – you're not here and you don't know the details, nor have you apparently taken the time to really read the objections. We already HAVE plenty of buses going down the West End/Broadway corridor that are EMPTY. There is no need for an AMP/BRT when the existing public transportation is barely being used. The StopAMP group is not opposed to mass transit — we just want to be judicious in spending our limited funds and believe that these monies should be used to provide transportation where NONE exists, not to duplicate a route already served in the name of being progressive.

    1. Having killed the project, yet still trolling a Fresno based blog? Methinks the lady doth protest too much…

    2. I love the "bus is empty" myth. It shows absolutely no knowledge of how bus systems work. I also find it interesting that youre trolling the internet to spread said myths.

    3. The "hardly anyone rides the buses" argument is such a sham that it's not even funny. The same argument can logically be made about any of the vast expanses of highway that are empty at any given time, yet money continues to be poured into making those bigger too. We heard those very arguments in many various forms as the sbX Green Line was developed. Fortunately, level heads prevailed, and we're now blessed with only the sixth ITDP-certified BRT system in the country to get Bronze or better ('s+New+sbX+Green+Line+is+Latest+Example+of+True+BRT+in+the+US). This is accompanied by transit-oriented zoning near the stations that allow for lower parking minimums and more importantly, mixed-use development.

      I've not studied Fresno or Nashville in depth since I don't live in either, but I have visited both and made some observations off what I did see. The "empty road" argument can certainly be made in both cities. Even if it isn't for BRT, some space needs to be taken from those roads that are far overbuilt. Current land use patterns cannot support the infrastructure going forward and will come back to take out a nasty bite in the future.

      Furthermore, local bus service is often completely unappealing to the vast majority of people, even those who really can't afford to drive a car. Improving the service goes a long way toward keeping those who can't afford to drive from doing so. More importantly, it provides a service that is a viable alternative to driving, which serves to coax some drivers out of their cars. When coupled with TOD zoning, this can really help revitalize a city. Value, revenue, and tax receipts for a given parcel of land will be far better for developments that are compact than they are for those spread far and wide.

      Also, tourists are who you really want using your BRT (or anything else, for that matter). Here at home, I buy a monthly pass. After 30 uses, I've saved money by doing so. Or in other words, just a single ride per day. A tourist won't buy a monthly pass, they'll pay each ride. Money is made off of the tourists, not the residents.

  6. James Sinclair and Neil: You first mentioned Nashville BRT in your post, but do not consider THAT 'trolling'? You receive a response from someone who lives along the Nashville BRT route and dismiss it…because YOU believe THEY "troll" or create 'stories'? A few facts: The proposed Nashville BRT project has very little local public support (either among riders in the corridor, or from the businesses along the route). The local bus company did not perform a Likely Daily Ridership Survey. No Feasibility Study. No Alternatives Analysis (or most of the required Environmental Studies within an AA). Basically: they bypassed citizen "buy in" – even citizen notification. Now they are paying the price for that 'mistake'. The proposed BRT project in Nashville has a lot of hyped support from those who don't live here, and from those who will personally profit if such a project is built (land near the proposed passenger stations have been rezoned for "friends" of the local land use department). The Chamber of Commerce is primarily pushing this project to serve tourists (and asks that it be funded by those who live here). Regular buses on this corridor ARE nearly completely empty (that is NOT a myth). According to local government stats, 2% of citizens in the whole county use any type of "transit" here. We do not benefit from accurate transit Ridership numbers, either! Ask our local bus company. That would be same group of unelected city officials who operate the regional transit system (which got in trouble a few years ago, over low ridership and lack of dedicated operating funds). Tennessee is a state which does not have ANY dedicated funds for ANY type of "transit", much less gold standard BRT. The local bus company bypassed the approval process of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, because they could. The local bus company proposed to build within the existing road Right Of Way, and thought adding 16 traffic lights (for the MIDBLOCK stations) within a 7 mile route and prohibiting left turns along most of the route was not an adverse impact to the 4 highways the route crosses over. The local bus company performed a second round of traffic studies (after initial bus company study revealed a 100% increase in auto trip times — due to lane capacity reduction!). The second round of traffic studies reported zero impact to autos on the route as well as discounting any impact to side street travel. Our MTA CEO recently resigned and took a job in Fort Worth TX (told Texans he exited Nashville over the lack of dedicated funds for transit). The Feds are now analyzing all of the shoddy engineering "work" already submitted to them (certified, BTW, by that ex-MTA CEO, as conforming to FTA standards). Before you start trash talking those in Nashville who do not support the BRT project: know that we've had a push to find ways to fund transit for more than 8 years and come up with NO ANSWERS. Portland OR, Eugene OR, Chicago IL, Nashville TN, Bethesda MD, Berkley and now Fresno, CA are communities trying to figure out whether to pay for a very poor transit design which carries few people and hurts businesses along the route. Let's agree to focus on realistic solutions to resolve "infrastructure" problems. The gold standard BRT has exhausted it's initial support here in Nashville, TN.

    1. Did you read the first line of this post?
      Fact: Nashvilles BRT fight made headlines nationwide
      Fact: Fresnos did not
      Point: This article was intended to raise awareness of a similar issue elsewhere by reminding the reader of a story they probably did see.

      Its highly amusing how you took that one line to mean anything more than a connection between two similar stories (the fight against BRT). Trash talking Nasvhille? You've quite the fertile imagination there. With that kind of imagination, its no wonder no one buys your "facts".

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