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Fresno-Clovis trail a hastily-arranged throwback to Autry era

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The city of Fresno is getting a new trail. It’s nothing but straight lines and right angles.

Still, it’s got me confused. Maybe that’s what politics does to a simple walking path.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin and key community leaders gathered Monday afternoon on the back lot of Central Fresno’s Fire Station No. 5 to announce the kickoff of the Midtown Trail Project.

The trail will be seven miles long and begin at Shields and Blackstone avenues, next to Manchester Center. It will head east along Shields, then take a turn south at Millbrook Avenue. It will head east again at McKinley Avenue all the way to Clovis Avenue. It will then head north along Clovis until it connects with the Clovis Old Town Trail.

Much of the Midtown Trail will run parallel to Fresno Irrigation District canals. When completed, the Midtown Trail will be part of an unbroken 17-mile trail system running through Clovis and much of central and north Fresno.

In other words, the Midtown Trail will be a jewel all by itself. But when connected to a handful of other trails already built – well, lucky indeed is the man, woman or child with easy access to this unique system of outdoor recreation.

“As a result of this major project, we will connect Central Fresno, the city of Clovis and North Fresno,” Swearengin said. “We’re finally providing the infrastructure that not only makes walking and biking more convenient, it also marks the opportunity for more transportation options that can make our community a healthier place to live.”

Let’s listen a bit to the other speakers.

City Manager Bruce Rudd said the Midtown Trail is a collaborative effort whose partners include the city of Clovis, Fresno County, Fresno Irrigation District and the Fresno County Transportation Authority.

The trail’s financing “got a little creative,” Rudd said, “but the end project, the end result, is something we can all get behind.” Rudd noted that cities today face “a very competitive environment for transportation funding.”

Rudd’s final comment was memorable: “I look forward to walking on this trail in two to three years rather than participating in a ground-breaking four years later.”

Swearengin before she introduced Council President Paul Caprioglio noted that “this is a complicated legal project.”

Caprioglio represents District 4, located in central and east-central Fresno.

“This is a very exciting moment, not only for District 4, which is a lot of McKinley Avenue, but for the entire region. Not just Fresno, but the region will benefit from this park.”

Swearengin before she introduced Council Member Steve Brandau noted that the Better Blackstone Association supports the Midtown Trail.

Brandau represents District 2, in Northwest Fresno. He said he and his constituents are blessed with trails. The construction of the Midtown Trail, Brandau said, will “allow a lot of new folks to enjoy trail-riding and walking and time with their families and a sense of community.”

Brandau is a member of the Fresno Country Transportation Authority’s governing board. The board oversees the spending of Measure C money (we’re talking about the decades-old local sales tax earmarked for county transportation projects).

Speaking of the FCTA board, Brandau noted that “we had to tweak a few of our bylaws that would allow us to use maintenance money to make this trail happen, and also to take an advance on money that would be coming to Fresno so that we could get started on this trail right away. I want to thank all of my colleagues on the FCTA board that helped us to do that.”

In conclusion, Brandau said: “I look forward to riding my bike on this trail in the years to come.”

Finally, Clovis Mayor (and Fresno County Supervisor-elect) Nathan Magsig stepped to the microphone.

Fresno and Clovis, Magsig said, “were able to collaborate on a project that’s going to benefit the entire metropolitan area.”

Magsig said the day will soon come when the Fresno-Clovis regional trail system is connected to trail systems in Fowler, Sanger, Reedley and other county communities.

The Midtown Trail will cost $9.5 million. Construction should begin in 2017.

It was a wonderful news conference. I thought: Collaboration; regionalism; creative financing; tweaked FCTA bylaws; intense competition for transportation money; valuable neighborhood amenity; Blackstone Avenue revitalization; connected trails all the way to Reedley and other rural cities; another full year – 2017! – before anyone turns the first shovelful of dirt on the Midtown Trail.

What’s really going on here?

Then I remembered: The Midtown Trail – any municipal trail – is essentially a park. Fresno City Hall is in the middle of hearings on the Mayor’s proposed 2016-17 budget. The Parks Department’s budget is slated for a grilling by the council on Tuesday morning (June 14). And if last year’s budget hearings are any indication, nothing gets certain portions of this City Council riled up like a Parks Department spending plan.

Then I did a little research late Monday afternoon. I discovered that the story behind the Midtown Trail isn’t simple.

For now I’ll give you six quick points, a hint at all the moving pieces:

1.) A substantial amount of Midtown Trail construction money — $4.3 million, I’m told – is coming from a special pot of Measure C money. This special pot is supposed to be spent on rail consolidation.

Rail consolidation was once a hot topic in Fresno. The idea was that the two major railroad lines – Union Pacific and Burlington Northern-Santa Fe – caused a lot of traffic problems. Why not combine the two lines, thus saving motorist headaches and reducing air pollution?

Rail consolidation fell by the wayside once the high-speed rail project got going. But the rail consolidation/Measure C bank account remained flush.

I’m told that City Hall, with the FCTA board’s approval, will borrow $4.3 million from the Rail Consolidation account (after all, that money is just sitting there collecting dust). That money will jumpstart construction of the Midtown Trail. That’s why Rudd will be enjoying the trail sooner rather than later.

2.) How will City Hall repay this loan (with interest)? I’m told the city every year gets a certain amount of Measure C money for trails. I’m told the city will simply apply this annual stipend to the annual debt service on this loan from the Rail Consolidation account.

In other words, the city is using the Rail Consolidation account like a neighborhood bank. The city is giving up future annual trails allocations from Measure C in order to get a bigger chunk of money now, and paying a premium (interest) to do so.

3.) Such a plan makes me think of No Neighborhood Left Behind, the multi-million-dollar, long-term bond deal from the Autry Era. The city borrowed from the future to build lots of curbs and sidewalks in a hurry. City leaders over the past seven years harshly criticized such a spending strategy. Now it looks like the Midtown Trail will be doing the same thing to the new mayor taking office in January 2017 that No Neighborhood Left Behind did to Swearengin when she took office in January 2009.

4.) I was told the City Council and the FCTA board in recent weeks approved everything connected to the Midtown Trail. But I wasn’t able to find a paper trail proving that this is so. For example, my review of the City Clerk’s website suggests that the council has authorized the Parks Department to apply for state grants to build certain sections of the Midtown Trail, but the state has yet to say yes or no to these applications.

I’m also told that a formal contract between City Hall and the FCTA has yet to be drafted and approved by both legislative bodies.

5.) The Midtown Trail will parallel McKinley Avenue for a considerable distance. McKinley runs through its share of disadvantaged neighborhoods. That means the Midtown Trail will help address one of the persistent national criticisms of Fresno’s parks system – its failure to adequately serve older neighborhoods, many of them plagued with high concentrations of poverty.

But as maps at Monday’s news conference made clear, the Midtown Trail is actually a piece of a larger system that runs through Clovis and North Fresno. These maps hinted at a future of trails throughout Southeast Fresno, Southwest Fresno and West-of-Highway 99 Fresno, all of them connected in one way or another to the Midtown Trail. But for now, the Midtown Trail looks north, not south.

So, too, does the money.

6.) Council Member Esmeralda Soria wasn’t at Monday’s news conference. Nor were Jose Leon Barraza, Sarah Reyes and Ashley Werner, to name just a few of the community activists with a strong interest in parks for South Fresno. (At least I didn’t see them.)

All of them caused a lot of political headaches for Swearengin at last year’s budget hearings. They wanted her to be more aggressive in building parks in older parts of town.

Monday’s news conference felt like a concerted effort to build public support for a still-shaky Midtown Trail proposal and put the Soria-led camp on the defensive when Tuesday’s hearing on the 2016-17 parks budget begins.

I’m betting Soria won’t be silenced.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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