Every experienced reporter trying to tell a beloved story knows what to do when the personal agenda doesn’t fit the opportunity.
Get a bigger hammer.
I thought of that truism as I watched Fresno City Council Member Steve Brandau on Thursday turn a mundane committee report into a thoroughly entertaining – and, in the end, perceptive – riff on the often utopian nature of public transportation.
The council’s afternoon meeting was winding down when President Oliver Baines asked if any of his colleagues wanted to talk about their labors on various city and non-city committees.
For example, Clint Olivier represents the council on the Fresno Madera Area Agency board. All council members (plus Mayor Ashley Swearengin) do such important and often unheralded work throughout the year.
These oral reports aren’t unusual at council meetings. They’re also brief. It’s a rare update that goes past 30 seconds.
But Brandau on Thursday refused to let go of the microphone.
His obsession: A recent trip to the ARTIC.
Not the Arctic, as in the North Pole. ARTIC, as in the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center.
To back up a bit, Brandau and Swearengin represent City Hall on the Fresno County Transportation Authority (FCTA) board. This body makes sure your Measure C taxes are spent wisely.
Brandau began by noting that he sits on the FCTA board. I was sitting in the Council Chamber audience, and thought Brandau was going to talk about the previous day’s FCTA board meeting.
There was certainly food for thought there. The FCTA board for months had been debating whether to risk $750,000 on a developer’s complex plan to assemble land for a possible heavy maintenance facility that would service the bullet train.
The FCTA board pretty much tabled the idea forever. The political machinations to reach this conclusion must have been eye-opening. Maybe Brandau, a foe of high-speed rail if ever there was one, was going to give us the low-down on what happened.
No, the District 2 representative wanted to tell about his recent trip to a convention in Anaheim for Transportation Authority officials from throughout the state.
“I want to talk a little bit about what I heard there,” Brandau said. “I want to talk about ARTIC.”
Brandau nodded toward Assistant City Clerk Todd Stermer. That was the signal to begin the picture show. There, on the big wall screen behind the council dais, was the first of a dozen or so photographs Brandau had taken of ARTIC.
What is ARTIC? Let me quote from ARTIC’s Website:
“Located in the City of Anaheim alongside Honda Center and Angel Stadium of Anaheim, the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, known at ARTIC, is a premier transportation hub in Southern California, offering convenient transit, forthcoming dining, convenient retail and nearby entertainment in a central location. A LEED Platinum design building, ARTIC brings together the services of OCTA, Metrolink, Amtrak, Anaheim Resort Transportation, Megabus.com, Greyhound, taxi, bike access and other public and private transportation providers. The 67,000-square-foot hub, owned and built by the City of Anaheim and managed and leased by Lincoln Property Co., benefits residents, local businesses, commuters and visitors by offering increased mobility and convenient access to renowned attractions throughout Anaheim and Southern California.”
ARTIC’s building, especially its entrance, is truly stunning. Brandau had taken both daylight and nighttime color photos. He wanted to knock the socks off his audience. With me, he succeeded.
Enough context. I will let Brandau speak for himself.
ARTIC “was finished last year at a cost of $185 million,” Brandau said. “It was anticipated on opening day to have 10,000 people – to serve 10,000 people.
“We did a tour of this. About 50 people from different transportation authorities chose to take this as a day trip. So, I did a tour. There’s me there (referring to a photo), in front of this thing. Here it is at nighttime. It can get lit up by neon. It’s right next to Angels Stadium. When the Angels are in town, they put on the Angels’ colors. The whole thing is like a piece of artwork.
“The whole thing is very gorgeous — $185 million for 10,000 people a day.”
Brandau by this time was way beyond the unofficial 30-second limit for committee reports – and he hadn’t even stated a main point.
But he got there real soon.
“When I was there,” Brandau said, “I asked the tour guide how many people are coming through. Was it 10,000 people a day? He told me, ‘No, it was 2,500.’
“I quickly did the math while I was standing there. It was 2,500. If it was open 12 daylight hours, I needed to see about 200 people standing in front of me. The truth is there were maybe about 20.”
Brandau said he went online, and learned that some observers have estimated ARTIC serves only about 800 people a day.
“So, the project was projected for 10,000 people using it a day (but) it’s really 800 people a day,” Brandau said.
Brandau now hit his main point. The transition was too abrupt to earn him any comparisons to Churchill. But talk of taxpayer money has always turned Brandau into an impatient man.
“Six months into its life cycle, (ARTIC) is already $2 million behind budget,” Brandau said. “The Anaheim City Council is going to have to figure out how they’re going to pay for it.”
And even after all this first-year disappointment, Brandau said, ARTIC “was held up at this convention as a bright spot.”
Brandau made a parenthetical comment that ended up briefly sidetracking his argument.
“As beautiful as (ARTIC) is,” he said, “and, by the way, this is the actual final hub of high-speed rail, whenever high-speed rail gets there, 2080, 2085, whatever year that is ….”
Everyone knows the bullet train’s construction timeline is supposed to be measured in years, not decades. And everyone knows Bradnau think’s such optimism is insane.
So, the 2085 reference got Brandau chuckling to himself. Others on the dais joined in the laughter.
Brandau tried to get his speech back on track by talking about driverless cars, another hot-button topic for elite transportation experts.
Brandau said he was sick to death of government obsession with high-speed rail, $185 million intermodal hubs and driverless cars.
“I wish they would have talked about fixing streets in the city of Fresno,” Brandau said. “That’s what I believe they should be talking about – fixing streets in the city of Fresno, the county of Fresno and across the state of California.
“Whether you live in West Fresno, or Southwest Fresno like Barbara (Hunt, who was sitting the audience), or in Northwest Fresno like myself, you know the streets are damaged almost beyond repair.
“This is what we should have been talking about. Instead, we were talking about this project which I just showed you (he holds up his ARTIC research papers). This is not a dream. This happened. Now their City Council is scrambling to figure out how they’re going to pay for that. We don’t have that boondoggle in Fresno County. I don’t want to participate in one, by the way. We need to protect against it.”
Brandau was now five minutes into his speech. As background, dear reader, keep in mind an inside joke among council members started by Paul Caprioglio not long after he took the District 4 seat in January 2013.
Caprioglio calls it the “Blah-Blah-Blah” Award. The name explains the criteria. There’s no trophy. Someone on the dais will simply interrupt a chatty colleague with a stage-whisper comment about the Triple B Award.
So it was on Thursday when Brandau, preparing to make another transition, this time to Measure C money for trails, was handed something by President Baines.
“I got the Blah-Blah-Blah Award?” said an astonished Brandau.
“It just happened right now,” Baines said.
“Yeah, because I mentioned high-speed rail. I know how that works.”
The audience by this time consisted of Barbara Hunt and me. There was no pressure on anyone. Baines in a lighthearted manner was merely reminding Brandau of the concept of focus.
Brandau, a good sport, laughed.
At the same time, Brandau has a point.
Transportation is one of a handful of Fresno City Hall issues that also resonates nationally.
As Brandau talked, I thought of the status of Fresno’s Bus Rapid Transit project. I don’t where it stands. The proposal changed so much en route to getting City Council approval that I don’t know even a ballpark figure for its possible cost – still in the $50 million range (much of it from the feds)? But I know BRT is supposed to be transformative for Fresno in the same way that ARTIC is supposed to change Southern California.
I thought of Herndon Town, in the far northwest corner of District 2. The City Council earlier on Thursday had discussed the possible sale of Riverside Municipal Golf Course to a residential builder in the hopes of getting $30 million for city coffers. Big Muni, as golfers call it, is right next to Herndon Town. High-speed rail is supposed to go right next to Herndon Town, as well. I wondered if our quest for money and the bullet train means Herndon Town, a poor and forgotten community, is doomed.
I thought of Fresno Area Express, our traditional bus service. When was the last time we had a fare study?
I thought of city plans for a new trails/bicycle master plan. When does that project get started?
I thought of the high hopes for Fulton Corridor. Will the return of cars to what is now Fulton Mall deliver a miracle of economic growth for the six blocks between Tuolumne and Inyo avenues. Or will the $20 million project be our version of ARTIC?
I’m guessing Brandau in his spirited but rambling report on the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center hoped to inspire such introspection among his listeners.
“There you have the facts,” Brandau said in conclusion.
His sledgehammer worked.