Failings of block grants? Look no further than Fresno State's failed bike trail

I began my search with a trip to COG headquarters in Downtown. The good folks there gave me copies of Fresno State’s applications for both the ATP and CMAQ grants.

“The project to build bikeways requires major work on an aged, narrow urban street, resulting in a price tag that is far beyond the means of a public university like Fresno State,” says the ATP application. “Fresno State also sits in the San Joaquin Valley, whose economic and air quality challenges are grim. Building these bikeways is about social justice on every level: for our students (over 50% of whom are Pell grant recipients) and for the larger community whose population is majority-minority and whose socio-economic status has lagged behind the state’s for decades.

“Adjacent to the University are four Environmental Justice areas and two disadvantaged neighborhoods – Sierra Madre and El Dorado Park – and the latter’s zip code has been ranked among the poorest in California. The University is also a heavily-trafficked activity center for the City, and a significant amount of vehicle idling occurs all day, producing a disproportionate amount of pollutants for the neighborhood.

“Fresno State met the challenge of balancing its budget even with all the radical cuts (exceeding 20%) made in recent years to the California State University system because of the economic downturn that hit hard the State of California. The University is poised to move forward with a stable funding base now established with moderate increasing state funds on the horizon, but these funds will be applied to maintain the quality of teaching in the classrooms and to address the large amount of deferred maintenance of the physical campus that took place during the economic downturn. The University will have to rely on aggressive pursuit of external funding to make its physical campus a model of a premiere Hispanic-Serving Institution.”

There’s much to find fascinating in that statement. It’s sufficient here to note that the statement covers two of my key points. First, that’s quite a crisis to be (partially) resolved with a bikeway. Second, notice how another grant program (Pell grants) is mentioned to help give legitimacy and immediacy to the request for ATP funding.

The ATP grant application runs to 16 pages of passionate persuasion. Who can blame the university for its rhetoric? Humility doesn’t work in this arena.

I’ll add only one more item from the ATP application. Fresno State was asked to describe “any of your agency’s ATP type grant failures during the past 5 years, and what changes your agency will take in order to deliver this project.”

The response: “Fresno State has no past grant experience with ATP but has performed satisfactorily on similar grants. The university just completed Phase I of the Barstow Avenue Bikeways with funding from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The university in general performs satisfactorily (or above) on approximately $35 million in externally-funded projects annually (annually is underlined for emphasis). Also, Fresno State operates a full construction program including staff and contract expertise in engineering and architecture that starts from preliminary/schematic design through construction documents, bid phase, award, and construction to include inspection and code compliance. In the next 4 months, Fresno State will break ground on 3 building projects that total over $80 million in cost.”

My journey to COG headquarters was inspired by more than just curiosity about the grant applications. Ramirez’s story in The Collegian also got me thinking about time. Near as I can tell, three-and-a-half years had elapsed between the awarding of the grants and The Collegian’s story informing the student community that the Barstow Avenue bikeway project is all but dead.

Did the folks at COG and Caltrans know the project was dead? If so, when did they know? Most important, did the money that Fresno State failed to spend on the bikeway project get reallocated quickly to another jurisdiction – perhaps a jurisdiction whose grant application lost out to the university’s application some three years ago?

To make a long story short, it appears that communication between Fresno State and the agencies in charge of the grants wasn’t ideal.

I showed two COG officials a copy of The Collegian with Ramirez’s story. Both said the story was the first they knew of the bikeway project’s death. But, they emphasized, there had been a lot of turnover recently among COG personnel. And some COG employees who might be more up to date on the CMAQ grant were out of the office that day.

The COG officials said they’d get back to me. They kept their promise. COG in an email said the $570,000 would be put back into the big CMAQ pot and dispensed to another worthy recipient by 2019. Why the delay? The awarding of grants involves a lot of public participation, COG said.

COG in the email also said that “we last spoke to Fresno State about their project in March 2016…. At that time, their project was still on track…. Their project ran into problems sometime between March 2016 and December 2016. In early December 2016, we were notified by Fresno State via letter that Fresno State would no longer be able to complete the project and was forfeiting the project.”

Recall, if you will, that Vice President Adishian-Astone told The Collegian’s Ramirez that Fresno State had put the project on hold in January 2016. If I correctly read the COG email to me, COG officials could have gotten that $570,000 reallocated to another agency two years sooner (2017 rather than 2019) if they had known in January 2016 rather than December 2016 that the Barstow Avenue bikeway wouldn’t be built.

As for Caltrans’ $872,000 ATP grant, I spoke by phone with Caltrans civil engineer/project manager Pedram Mafi.

Mafi said he had been in regular contact with Fresno State officials about the project. I got the sense from Mafi that there had been no foul-up with timing between the two parties. Fresno State pulled the plug; Caltrans knew quickly; the $872,000 went back into the pot for reallocation.

Mafi was blunt on one point in particular: Fresno State with the Barstow Avenue bikeway project had bitten off more than it could chew.

“This was a very cumbersome project for the jurisdiction to do,” Mafi told me. “You have to be an expert.”

I conclude by circling back to the President.

Trump’s first budget, unveiled earlier this year, proposed the killing of Community Development Block Grants, a federal program dating back to the Nixon era. Fresno City Hall hopes to get $6.5 million in CDBG funds in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

CDBG money is supposed to fight poverty. Critics say the program has become a boondoggle in too many cities. There’s no transparency and no accountability, they say. Community Development Block Grants have become a self-perpetuating money pit above the concept of reform, they say.

Fresno has certainly had its problems in spending CDBG money according to the rules, as I’ve reported in the CVObserver.

Community Development Block Grants are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to government grants.

It’s hard to look at the Barstow Avenue bikeway project failure and not wonder if the entire government grant industry needs an overhaul.

That would be social justice.

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