Call it the “Big Gamble.” That is Fresno City Hall’s latest idea for finishing the perpetually-delayed Veterans Boulevard project.
What is the gamble? In part, it’s gathering a bunch of local leaders, flying to Washington, D.C., pigeonholing top officials in the Trump Administration, and squeezing them for $45 million.
But that’s not the scary part of the Big Gamble. The scary part is City Hall’s Plan B should Fresno officials come home empty-handed.
There is no Plan B.
All this and much more took center stage Thursday evening at Council Member Steve Brandau’s Veterans Boulevard Town Hall. About 300 people crowded into the cafeteria at Herndon-Barstow Elementary School in Northwest Fresno. That packed the place to standing room only standards. More people stood outside the main doorway, hoping the event’s stars talked loud enough to be heard at a considerable distance.
It’s pretty amazing that a project that remains largely on the drawing board a third-of-a-century after it was first proposed could generate that kind of interest. Then again, Veterans Boulevard is an epic in Fresno history. Whether it ends up an epic success or an epic farce is still to be determined.
First, the breaking news.
The officials manning the public microphone said the project is expected to cost $144.2 million. The project has a handful of funding streams, including Measure C and the state. Some of the money has been spent. Some is in hand. Some is sure to come.
But secure funding is still $45 million short of what’s needed.
Local leaders have an annual lobbying campaign called One Voice. They go to the nation’s capital, symbolically lock arms with regional Congressional representatives, and use this united front to pressure the federal government for money.
Brandau said he will join the One Voice delegation later this spring in asking President Trump’s Administration for the $45 million. The thinking: Trump is talking about a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure projects across the nation; Fresno already has plenty of “skin in the game,” to the tune of nearly $100 million; Veterans Boulevard is a “shovel ready” project because the preliminary work (plans, land acquisition, etc.) is done or nearly done.
“Are we giving you false hope?” Brandau said at the start of the nearly two-hour meeting. “I don’t think so.”
But closing that funding gap with federal dollars isn’t a sure thing.
“We need all of your help, we need all of the energy in this room tonight, to make this come to pass,” Brandau said.
Brandau at the end of the meeting made a similar plea. He said the other six council members need to personally hear from Northwest Fresnans about the need for Veterans Boulevard. He said he’ll schedule an early evening hearing on the issue, and asked for a strong turnout.
The hearing’s date is still to come.
There you have the Town Hall’s breaking news – Trump needs to deliver (which he failed to do at Running Horse 10 years ago as a developer) and the City Council needs to listen.
But that’s not enough to fill nearly two hours.
What did fill much of the time was same ol’-same ol’.
Herndon-Barstow Elementary School is on Grantland Avenue, about a half-mile north of Bullard Avenue. The school is part of the West-of-Highway 99 piece of Fresno. The area doesn’t have a spiffy nickname, like The Tower or Uptown or Sunnyside. Jacky Parks, the former president of the police union who lives in this neck of the woods, told the audience that he calls it “Forgotten Fresno.”
“Forgotten Fresno” is an apt moniker.
The trouble with Forgotten Fresno is that it’s the poster child for abysmal infrastructure planning. The local fire station is in a suburban house. Parks are few and far between. The nearest police station might as well be in Kerman. Curbs, gutters and sidewalks are missing in some areas.
But the big problem is access, especially if you’re in a car on the east side of 99.
Forgotten Fresno is actually a rather large area. It extends from the Herndon-99 intersection in the north to about Belmont Avenue at Roeding Park in the south. But it’s the part of Forgotten Fresno that goes from Herndon-99 to Shaw Avenue that is an access nightmare for drivers coming from east of 99.
You can take Herndon to Parkway Drive, and then to Grantland (sort of the area’s Main Street). But that means you fight all the traffic heading to 99, not to mention freight trains.
Or you can take Shaw, cross 99, and then to Grantland. Here, again, you’re fighting all the traffic heading to 99, not to mention freight trains. And Shaw as it crosses 99 turns into a two-lane road.
As City Manager Bruce Rudd told Thursday’s audience, City Hall some 35 to 40 years ago gave birth to this infrastructure disaster when it began approving residential projects west of 99 without insisting on satisfactory planning and funding commitments.
The city’s growth to the northwest (east of 99) further added to Forgotten Fresno’s access challenges by bringing more traffic to Herndon and Shaw.
Veterans Boulevard is to be the answer. The proposed high-volume road would start in the north at Herndon near Polk. It would angle across 99 to at least as far south as Shaw, if not a little further. It would connect Herndon and Grantland.
Simply put, Veterans Boulevard would take a lot of the traffic load off Herndon and Shaw while giving Forgotten Fresno residents an effective option for crossing the great divide that is Highway 99.
None of this is news. Veterans Boulevard was first proposed in 1984. It’s a safe bet that two or three of the angry Forgotten Fresnans at Thursday’s Town Hall were conceived, born, potty-trained, educated, married and radicalized while Veterans Boulevard plans sat gathering dust on someone’s desk.
Brandau’s District 2 includes part of Forgotten Fresno. Council Member Esmeralda Soria’s District 1 includes the middle of Forgotten Fresno (Terri Cox, Soria’s chief of staff, was at the Town Hall). Council Member Oliver Baines’ District 3 includes the southern part of Forgotten Fresno.
All three council members want City Hall to fund the creation of a specific plan for Forgotten Fresno. Brandau on Thursday pressed Rudd to promise to fund the specific plan in the Fiscal Year 2017-2018 budget. I think I heard Rudd take the bait, but I’m not sure.
A specific plan is a growth blueprint. In Forgotten Fresno’s case, a specific plan would be an exercise similar to trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.
All this ancient history was deliberated, debated and decried on Thursday, which is why I said much of the Town Hall was same ol’-same ol’.
Local officials also spoke at length about the wonderful interchange that will be built where Veterans Boulevard crosses 99 and the bullet train’s path. The High-Speed Rail Authority will spend millions on building the interchange, thus defraying some of Veterans Boulevard’s cost.
That’s nice. But Forgotten Fresnans have been listening to promises about the interchange for years. Same ol’-same ol’.
Forgotten Fresnans at Thursday’s Town Hall wanted just three things: Fix the mess at Shaw/99; fix the mess at Herndon/Parkway Drive; build Veterans Boulevard.
All other chatter is empty, if not deceitful.
A portion of the question-and-answer period got testy. One audience member got on her soap box and wouldn’t get off.
But another audience member, clearly someone who has had her fill of same ol’-same ‘ol from City Hall, raised the evening’s most important point. She did so tactfully and eloquently.
She said: Trump might say no. Veterans Boulevard is vitally important to Forgotten Fresno. Where else could City Hall get $45 million in a hurry?
You know that sound that comes from repeatedly raking your index finger across your lips?
That was City Hall’s answer to Forgotten Fresno.
Photo: The Fresno Bee