If you read this blog, you’ve probably heard the news that Fresno Air Terminal (FAT) will be expanded in the next couple of years, and they’re calling it FATforward because why not. This will be the first customer-facing expansion since 2006, when the international arrivals area was built. Since then, there have been some changes on the air side, but nothing major. Of course, the biggest expansion in FAT history was in 2002, when the second-level concourse was built with jet bridges (title picture).
The expansion has two components: terminal expansion, and parking expansion. Let’s talk about parking first!Click to read more!
The bad news: The pace at which the work is being done indicates that there is a single person working on his weekends to complete it. At the current pace, we will all be dead before that person is done.
Background: In May 2015 a company announced a renovation of Manchester Center. A year later, nothing had happened. In September 2016, the Bee reported that work was beginning and phase 1 would be done by Spring 2017. Click to read more!
While not the focus of this blog, I’ve talked a few times about air service from Fresno Air Terminal (FAT). A couple of years ago, I compared air service in Fresno to a group of peer cities, which confirmed that Fresno is under-served.
One big question has been: what destination is missing from Fresno? United answered that question in part last year by adding trial service to Chicago on an Embraer 175 operated by Skywest. This route was somewhat noticeable because it became one of the longest flights in the US operated by a small regional jet. Well, the test proved successful, and United will again operate flights to Chicago in 2019, but this time with a full-sized plane (A319). However, service will still be summer-only. In 2017, United also increased their service to Fresno by upgrading San Francisco to a mainline jet. Click to read more!
The California High Speed Rail Authority used to post videos every month or two summarizing their construction progress. Unfortunately, that ended around October of last year. Now they’re back with a new video highlighting what has been going on. At under four minutes, it’s a good watch.
While they’ve been stingy with their videos, they have continuously updated their Flickr account. Usually new photos go up every 3-5 weeks.
Here are some of my recent favorites. I especially like the ones from angles I cannot get myself.
I’m hoping that in 2019, we see these various construction sites linked up with rails and walls. I think that once that happens, the project will really seem to be real, even though we know train service is still far away.
Additionally, one other major piece of infrastructure was recently “finished,” and that’s the train station in San Francisco.Or at least the box where it goes. Streetsblog has a tour here.
Of course, I wish this all was moving faster. But it’s still nice to see that it is moving at all.
I love plans. I have also learned that every plan should be read with a heavy dose of skepticism because many of them don’t go anywhere. California publishes a State Rail Plan every couple of years, and it is always full of exciting ideas, including new rail lines, increased service, and better operations. However, I never post about those plans because most of them just never happen, so why waste time? For example, from the State Rail Plan:
The Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) has been studying passenger service in a 141 mile rail corridor between Los Angeles Union Station and Indio, CA since 1991.
One such proposal I’ve seen a lot about involves a big increase in rail service in the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley including shifting the Amtrak San Joaquin over to a completely separate rail line into Sacramento, adding a bunch of stations, and increasing service. Cool stuff, but it’ll never happen, right?
Well, earlier this year, those plans were granted $500 million. Five hundred million! That’s real money to turn the plan into an actual operating rail line, so it’s time to take a very serious look at what is actually going to happen. This money is thanks to SB1, a law that is estimated to provide $52 billion over the next decade to transportation projects. Keep that in mind when you vote in November.
The state Thursday put another $500.5 million into expanding passenger rail connecting the Bay Area with Modesto and other inland cities.
Some of the money will go to extending the Altamont Corridor Expresss, which runs between Stockton and San Jose by way of Livermore and Fremont. It could reach Ceres by 2023 and Merced by 2027 with this funding on top of $400 million allotted last year.
The $500 million also will pay for expanding ACE north to Sacramento by 2020, including new stations to be shared with the current Amtrak service in that corridor.
All of the $900 million will come from the gasoline tax increase signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. The projects aim to provide comfortable rides for people who now drive to the Bay Area, where jobs are plentiful but housing is costly. Modesto BeeClick to read more!
A frequent topic here has been about how expensive it can be to fly out of Fresno. Specifically, how the lack of lower-cost airlines (especially Southwest) has kept prices high. Even though the city was the birthplace of Allegiant Air, that company is now based in Las Vegas and only flies from Fresno to Vegas (although they have previously flown to Honolulu and Mesa/Phoenix as well). Frontier is low cost, but their flights to Denver come and go based on airport incentives. On the nicer end, Jetblue is nowhere to be found, nor is Spirit at the low end.
In comparison, Boise (metro population of 709,845, less than Fresno’s 972,297) has low cost flights to 15 different cities through Southwest, Allegiant, and Frontier. A couple of years ago, I looked at some peer cities and found this:
There have been some changes since, but nothing too drastic. Frontier came back to Fresno, for example, and Reno gained an additional Jetblue destination.
Personally, I’d love for Jetblue to add Fresno, but it seems incredibly doubtful. I was hoping that they would buy new planes and shift their older Embraer 190s to smaller markets like Fresno. Instead, they simply committed to replace their existing Embraer fleet with a larger Bombardier model and retire the older planes. That makes Fresno even less likely in their future, since each flight has more seats to fill.
The airline said it hasn’t yet decided how many seats it will put on the A220-300, which can hold as many as 160 passengers. It also has the right to convert some orders to the smaller A220-100 plane, which can take as many as 135 seats. The Embraer E190s being replaced carry 100.
However, there may be some hope.
The guy who created Jetblue – and other airlines around the world such as WestJet in Canada and Azul in Brazil – is back to start a brand new airline. Unlike Jetblue, which began by focusing on major airports like JFK, Boston, and Fort Lauderdale, this new airlines is aiming for undeserved airports. This isn’t just an idea, he’s already signed up to buy 60 brand new airplanes.
David Neeleman is raising funds to launch a new low-cost airline, called Moxy, Airline Weekly reports. Moxy could launch as soon as 2020, as soon it takes delivery of its first aircraft.
Moxy has big plans for thinking small. The airline will use Bombardier CS5300 aircraft to shuttle passengers between smaller airports, like Providence, Rhode Island; Hollywood Burbank Airport in Los Angeles; and Chicago’s Gary International Airport.
Moxy has placed an order for 60 Bombardier CS5300 aircraft, according to Bloomberg. Capable of carrying 130 passengers, the lightweight carbon fiber plane was designed to service smaller airports. It offers “over 15% cash operating cost advantage, over 20% fuel burn advantage, exceptional operational flexibility, widebody comfort and an unmatched environmental and noise footprint,” according to the manufacturer. Travel and Leisure Click to read more!
In February of this year, Fresno finallylaunched the “Q,” a new express bus line with increased peak service along the two busies transit corridors in the city. In addition, the system expanded service hours past 9pm and added live bus arrival times. While it is way too early to make any definitive statements about how Q has impacted FAX (Fresno Area Express), the early data looks promising. We now have data showing three full months under the new service plan, and the initial results are good.
First a reminder. Here is what Fresno bus ridership looked like for ten years, from July 2008 to October 2017. Pretty scary. You can read my full analysis here.
Now let us zoom in to the last 2 years. I have highlighted April and May of 2016, 2017, and 2018 to make an easier year-over-year comparison.
Since the status quo was a continuous decline, even stopping that decrease would be a positive. Instead, the system has done better and shows ridership ticking up a notch compared to previous years.
This next chart shows ridership plotted against Vehicle Revenue Hours (VRH) since 2005. The higher the VRH, the more time the buses are spending on the road serving customers. You can see that began to increase in 2017 when FAX introduced later hours and increased service on Shaw Avenue in advance of the Q rollout.
This next graph shows ridership plotted against the maximum number of buses FAX runs at a given time (rush hour peak). I like it because it helps highlight how stagnant the system was for so many years. Once again, you can see when the initial FAX-15 rolled out on Shaw and Blackstone in advance of the Q service. This one also helps to show that even with this expansion, FAX used to operate more peak service in the past. Essentially, they cut 3 routes and re-allocated the money to run those buses on other lines during other times of the day, which is why the previous graph does not show a marked decrease.
Of course, I look forward to seeing this data again once we have a few more months to look at. People do not respond immediately to transit improvements. If you bought a car because FAX service wasn’t getting you to work, it is hard to come back, for example. However, as people move and start new jobs, they might take a new look at FAX and realize that the improvements help get them to where they’re going, and at least for the near future, these improvements in service are guaranteed by federal funds.
One question that will surely be brought up: What about gas prices? They have indeed been rising. However, that increase hasn’t yet resulted in improved ridership in the peer cities I track. Modesto and Visalia are pretty flat, and Bakersfield is hard to compare with because they started counting their ridership in a new way in 2017. Across the country, I continue to read stories about how transit ridership is still falling as well.
In conclusion, congratulations FAX, you have discovered that people like better service!
The Fresno Council of Governments (COGs) is the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the Fresno area. Basically, their job is to ensure planning is done on a regional basis, rather than a city-by-city basis. Or in their words:
The Fresno Council of Governments (Fresno COG) is a consensus builder, developing acceptable programs and solutions to issues that do not respect political boundaries. Fresno COG is a voluntary association of local governments, one of California’s 38 regional planning agencies, and one of 500+ nationwide. In 1967 elected officials of Fresno County and its incorporated cities informally created the agency, formalizing Fresno COG in 1969 through a Joint Powers Agreement. Fresno COG undertakes comprehensive regional planning with an emphasis on transportation, provides citizens an opportunity to be involved in the planning process, and supplies technical services to its members.Click to read more!
The Amtrak San Joaquin line, running from Bakersfield to Sacramento and Oakland, is operated by the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA). This local operation means we get a good amount of info on their upcoming plans. Recently, they released a draft of their new business plan. Additionally, they have a public meeting later this week. Here is a summary of what is coming up:
Early Morning Express Service
The early morning express, from Fresno to Sacramento launches on May 7. Trains will arrive in Sacramento at 7:41am. I talk about the schedule in this post.
As part of that project, which is aimed at attracting day-trippers and business travelers, parking is being expanded at various stations:
Stockton – 42 new spaces (open now)
Modesto – 108 new spaces (open now)
Turlock – 50 new spaces
Merced- 8 new spaces
Fresno- 60 new spaces
They’re planning on modifying the schedule again later this year to create a second early morning express, but one that runs from Fresno to Oakland. On one hand, this would allow people in Fresno, and north of Fresno, to get to the Bay Area early enough for work. Currently, the earliest train leaves Fresno at 6:18am, and arrives in Oakland at 10:26am. Add another 30 minutes to get into San Francisco.
On the other hand, that screws over people south of Fresno who lose another train. Like the Sacramento express, the train would start in Fresno, so no service to the south.
I think this is a mistake.
8th and 9th Daily Train coming in 2019
Since operations switched to the SJJPA, they have fulfilled long-standing plans to add service. A 6th train was added in 2002, and a 7th in 2016.
The new 8th train will go to Sacramento starting in 2019, providing 4 trains to the Bay, and 4 to Sacramento. Note that all trains offer a free connecting bus in Stockton, so if you’re going to Oakland on a Sacramento train, you are put on a bus to Oakland in Stockton.
The new 8th train, and one of the existing trains, will actually operate on a different train line north of Stockton, due to freight traffic. They will terminate somewhere else in Sacramento, and have different stops. More details on that later this year.
However, the 9th daily is a bit of an odd-ball. It doesn’t really deserve to be called a new train. Essentially, they’re going to replace one of those bus transfers with a shuttle train that only operates between Oakland and Stockton. Because people will still have to transfer, this new train really only makes sense if it’s scheduled at rush hour, where a bus can get stuck in traffic entering or leaving SF.
The long-term plan is to have hourly service between Sacramento and Fresno by 2035.
To keep adding service, the line needs more trains. Currently, the 7 trips are operated by 8 trains. As discussed previously, the state will be getting new trains from Siemens. They will start arriving in 2020 and end in 2023. I’m fairly confident in this timeline. The same factory just closed up production on trains for Florida, so they just have to keep moving, rather than starting from scratch.
However, these trains will be high-floor, and they still don’t how what they will be doing to address this problem.
“However, it is unclear if the current design of the Siemens car will provide a bridge plate long enough to span the distance to the mini -high platform”
For the current fleet, improved wifi is planned for 2019.
No more price buckets
Like airlines, Amtrak operates a system where tickets are priced in fare classes, or price buckets. Essentially, that works as follows:
50 tickets available at $10
Next 50 cost $13
Next 50 cost $16
Next 50 cost $20
That means, as the train fills up, you pay more.
On business-heavy routes, that makes sense. A tourist that can buy 6 months in advance gets to lock in a cheap fare. A businessperson who needs a ticket on the day of, can pay 10x as much, and expense it to their company. Not only does this system make Amtrak more money, but it ensures trains go out almost full.
This works well on the East Coast, where you can pay $49 to go between NYC and DC…or $250 the day of. Those trains are always busy.
But the San Joaquin doesn’t have business traffic. So the end result is that people who can least afford to pay – those who have to pay cash the day of – are hit with the highest fares. Additionally, San Joaquin trains very rarely sell out. Aside from Thanksgiving, there’s always room. Seats going out empty are COSTING Amtrak money. It makes more sense to sell discounted tickets the day of, to fill those seats.
Starting later this year, they will be removing “revenue management” from the San Joaquin. Instead, tickets will be priced like regular public transit: you can always know the cost to travel between two cities.
More Thurway Connections
SJJPA is looking to provide additional connections to buses that will take you to nearby cities from the train station. Existing buses offer service to Yosemite, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and dozens of smaller cities. They’re looking at a new express bus to Redding.
It currently takes the train a little more than 6 hours to go between Bakersfield and Oakland. However, there is a labor rule that means if trips exceed 6 hours, there has to be a crew change. That’s a huge waste of time and money. SJJPA is looking at different options to get under 6 hours.
One option is pretty scummy. It would be to terminate trains in Emeryville instead of Oakland.
Another option would be to skip a stop or two, likely Lodi. Also not good.
A better option would be to increase speeds to 90mph. They’re “measuring the option.”
I’m not a fan of flashy “silver bullet” projects that promise to revitalize depressed areas. Most recently, Fresno promised that removing the Fulton Mall and turning it into Fulton Street would revitalize the area. That hasn’t happened. Fifteen years ago, Chukchansi Park was sold with the same promise. Build a new stadium,, and people will come downtown to watch AAA baseball!
Well, sort of. People do go to the stadium to attend events and Grizzlies games. But they drive in, park across the street, watch the event, and then drive away ASAP.
That shouldn’t have come as a surprise, for a number of reasons.
For one, baseball is a pretty self-contained event. The whole tradition is to spend a few hours in the ballpark, eating hot-dogs, drinking beer, and chatting. The team in turn encourages this by selling ticket packages that include concessions, or advertising cheap beer. That doesn’t lend itself to supporting local business.
Secondly, baseball fans are old. According to this, the average MLB viewer in 2016 was 57, older than typical NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLS fans. Those older fans are also going to be less likely to give downtown Fresno a chance, and be less interested in engaging in some kind of pub-crawl and such. Walking around downtown at 9pm? Heavens no!
And on top of that, losing affiliation with San Francisco hasn’t helped. Grizzly attendance is down since that happened. In 2017, they averaged 6,208 fans per game, down from 7,430 a decade earlier.
So what about the new professional soccer team, Fresno FC? Will it revitalize downtown?
No, but I think it will be more helpful in moving the dial than the Grizzlies were. As a bonus, it’s good to see that the expensive stadium will get more use.
If your not familiar with how professional soccer is structured in the US, here’s a quick primer:
Major League Soccer (MLS), is the top league, or division one. They’re the one you can watch on ESPN, and they pay big bucks to famous players.
United Soccer League (USL) is 2nd division, sort of like AAA baseball, which is where the Grizzlies sit. There’s a couple of differences though. In baseball, AAA teams are closely tied to a major league team, and act as a training ground. That’s pretty much their purpose, prepare players for their MLB affiliate team. Players come and go depending on what the MLB team needs.
In soccer, that’s not really the case. Around the world, teams can move between divisions via promotion and relegation. Do badly in division 1, and down you go. Do well in division 2, and up you go. Not so in the US. In the US, you buy your way up, like in the NFL and the other pro-leagues.
Essentially, in the US, USL exists so secondary cities, like Fresno, can have professional soccer. Now, while USL teams do affiliate with MLS teams, they don’t act as a training ground at all.
On top of that, there is USl2, which sits below USL in the third division. In the US, this is sort of a dumb level. Not much going on here. If Visalia got a team, it would probably be USL2.
PDL (and a few other leagues) are fourth division, where the Fresno Fuego played. These folks are semi-pro. They’re pretty different because they mostly just play their games in the summer, and the teams are primarily staffed by college players who need to stay fresh while they are on vacation. The rest of the team is filled in by players who do get paid, but just barely. There are tons of fourth division teams all over the country. They’re not very stable, and the Fresno Fuego were one of the most successful teams, both in performance and attendance. That team will continue to live on as the Fresno FC Under 23s. (Which I’m not a fan of, Fresno Fuego was a good name and brand).
I know in Fresno, a lot of people were disappointed when they read that we were getting a professional team…but not MLS. The expectation was that the team would be a lot like the Grizzlies. However, there’s one key difference between AAA Baseball and USL Soccer:
The Grizzlies will never play the SF Giants.
But Fresno FC will most likely play real competitive games against MLS teams like the LA Galaxy.
In soccer, teams play their regular season against teams in their division. So Fresno will play other USL teams like Las Vegas, Sacramento, Reno, Phoenix, and Orange County on a consistent basis.
But on top of that, there is the “US Open Cup.” This is a tournament open to ALL soccer teams in the US. Really, all of them. If you and your buddies want to get a team together, you could potentially qualify (but it’s a long road!).
In fact, Fresno Fuego qualified for the tournament in 2003, 2012, 2014, and 2017.
And in 2003, Fresno Fuego played against the LA Galaxy (and lost 1-3).
For the Fuego, qualifying was tough. Qualification rules varied by year, but essentially they had to win their PDL division to qualify. Once in, they had to play a few rounds with lower level teams before matching with an MLS team.
For Fresno FC, qualification to the US Open Cup will be automatic, every year. And USL teams skip the lower levels.
For reference, in 2003, Fresno beat the Chico Rooks (an amateur team), the Utah Blitz (3rd division), El Paso Patriots (USL), and then matched with the LA Galaxy.
In 2014 and 2012, Fresno beat amateur teams before losing to USL teams.
Fresno FC will likely start off against a PDL team, and then get matched with a MLS team. If they win, likely another MLS team.
That’s real competition against teams with big names. And if Fresno FC manages to win the cup, they get entered into the CONCACAF Champions League, which includes the best teams from all over North America. I’m not saying that’s likely…but in 2009, the USL team Montreal Impact reached the quarter finals, and attracted 55,000 people to their match against Santos Laguna from Mexico.
Aside from the US Open Cup, USL teams do attract MLS teams for pre-season friendly matches, and can also book international teams. Fuego had some success setting up matches against teams from Mexico, and it will be a lot easier for Fresno FC, as a professional team, to keep doing that. Fuego also hosted a couple of games against MLS teams, but I think it was really just twice. For Fresno FC, expect it every year.
Basically, more important games against bigger name teams mean that MORE people will be coming downtown to the games. I think Fresno FC will easily start beating the Grizzlies in attendance.
If you want to learn more about the US Open Cup, this website is a great resource. 108 amateur teams entered qualifying, with 94 teams playing the main tournament.
The First Round will feature all 52 amateur clubs with the 26 winners advancing to Round 2 (May 16) where they will be joined by all 22 United Soccer League clubs. Defending champion Sporting Kansas City and the rest of the Major League Soccer clubs will join the competition in the Fourth Round (June 4-5), where they will be joined by 12 Third Round winners.Click to read more!