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$1.4bil in infrastructure fixes needed, wrangling begins over transportation plan

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The much-delayed Active Transportation Plan figures to be our first hint of Lee Brand’s budget priorities in June.

At least one Fresno-based activist hopes the Mayor delivers a plan focused on the basics of get-up-and-go municipal transportation – things like sidewalks, drainage, street lights.

In many of Fresno’s poorest neighborhoods, says Ashley Werner, a lawyer for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, such basics are only a dream.

“There are infrastructure deficits in some neighborhoods so serious that it looks like the people there don’t even live in a city,” Werner told me. “The duty of our municipal government is to address those needs.”

Is the Active Transportation Plan (ATP) the proper policy vehicle for such infrastructure reform? Werner thinks it could be. But the ATP coming down the pike – oh so slowly, it must be noted – appears more interested in transportation luxuries than necessities.

Bicycle paths and urban trails are the ATP’s priorities, in my opinion.

Werner and colleagues are trying at the last minute to tweak (if not rewrite) the plan’s emphasis.

The draft ATP describes itself as “a comprehensive guide outlining the vision for active transportation in the City of Fresno, and a roadmap for achieving that vision. Active transportation is human-powered travel including walking, bicycling, and wheelchair use. This plan strives to improve the accessibility and connectivity of the bicycle and pedestrian network for all City residents in order to increase the number of persons that travel by active transportation and to provide walking and bicycling facilities equitably for all City residents.”

The ATP doesn’t go live until adopted by the City Council. The council tried in late 2016, during the last weeks of Ashley Swearengin’s administration, but a full agenda convinced the legislators to kick the plan’s public hearing into early 2017.

The council was to try again on Feb. 9. But this time the hearing didn’t even get started. From the dais, Council President Clint Olivier told City Manager Bruce Rudd that several council members needed more time to review the plan.

Werner said it’s her understanding that the ATP hearing will be March 2.

I wonder why the council doesn’t just wait another three months and review the ATP during budget hearings. The annual budget and the ATP are inseparable – the latter is irrelevant unless it meshes with the former.

Public Works is in charge of creating the ATP. Public Works will be in charge of implementing the ATP. A new ATP arrives in City Hall about every 10 years. But Public Works is busy 24/7 throughout every year fixing and rebuilding Fresno’s transportation network.

And there lies the challenge in the debate on the new ATP. A quick look at the 2016-2017 budget (Swearengin’s last spending blueprint) shows a public works department up to its eyeballs in vital transportation projects.

Public Works in the current fiscal year is slated to spend $21.5 million just on paving, emergency street services, concrete repairs, street maintenance, pothole repairs, tree trimming and various landscape maintenance chores.

Then there are the capital projects. For example, Public Works over a three-year span is slated to spend $1.9 million on reconstruction of segments of Roy and Almy avenues in West Fresno. A new park has been built in the neighborhood. The neighborhood streets at the grand opening (which I attended for The Bee) looked like something out of a Third-World country.

Bottom line: A city the size of Fresno, just coming off a near-bankruptcy experience, has far more infrastructure needs than spare dollars.

Werner fully understands this.

“Infrastructure is a top priority of the residents we work with,” Werner says. “We work with a lot of parents who walk with their kids to and from public transit or to their schools. There are a lot of neighborhoods that don’t have sidewalks, and even some areas that don’t have paved streets. There’s a lack of street lights and storm water drainage. We can list all the needs, but they’re not going to addressed all at once. So, we also have to develop a method for getting those needs addressed.”

That method, in Werner’s opinion, is an ATP with wise criteria for determining priorities. The current draft ATP isn’t quite there, she says.

The draft ATP is about 340 pages in length. The total estimated cost for constructing all of the proposed bike paths, trails, sidewalks and supporting infrastructure is $1.4 billion.

The draft ATP (created with substantial community input) prioritizes the construction – high, medium, low. It’s sufficient for this blog to note that the ATP identifies $94.3 million of high-priority bikeways/trails and only $30.5 million of high-priority sidewalks. All told, the plan anticipates nearly $1 billion of investment in new bikeways/trails.

Don’t be mistaken – Werner is a big fan of bikeways and urban trails. Her beef is with a draft ATP whose prioritization formula (i.e. funding formula) favors the construction of bikeways/trails in neighborhoods that already have the basics such as sidewalks and drainage systems.

“How can we go about building bike lanes in neighborhoods that have these basic needs met when we’re not addressing the most basic safety needs in other neighborhoods?” Werner says.

The neighborhoods most in need of basic transportation infrastructure face a Catch-22 in the draft ATP.

The ATP places a priority on building in neighborhoods with high concentrations of people, Werner says. Neighborhoods without basic infrastructure lose the people who can afford to move out. The result is desperately poor neighborhoods with no hope of infrastructure improvements because of their declining or stagnant populations.

The draft ATP “is going to make it virtually impossible for the neighborhoods with the greatest needs to actually get their basic safety needs met through infrastructure,” Werner says. “That means neighborhoods like Jane Addams that have almost no infrastructure will suffer.”

Werner is talking about the neighborhood around Jane Addams Elementary School on McKinley Avenue, just to the west of Highway 99. This neighborhood is one of several that, in Werner’s opinion, are underserved by the draft ATP.

Werner suggested that I visit the Jane Addams neighborhood and see for myself. So, I walked there on Friday afternoon (Feb 17).

Needless to say, it was a rainy day. I got to the front of the school at about 3:45 p.m. School was already done, but Jane Addams apparently has an after-school program. I watched as several parents picked up their kids.

Jane Addams is on the south side of McKinley. There are sidewalks on the south side. One mother parked her mini-van on the north side of the street (which, near as I can tell from city maps, is in the city). There are no sidewalks on the north side. Mom and two children hopped over puddles to get to the car.

The intersection of McKinley and Woodson Avenue (which T-bones into Jane Addams) was flooded.

I walked on the McKinley sidewalk to Marks Avenue. A handful of youngsters walked in the same direction, but on the north side of McKinley – in the mud. Sure, they could have crossed the street to the sidewalk. But you know how kids are – they’re in their own world. Things got especially muddy near Marks. Several youngsters moved onto the asphalt of McKinley. They shared the street with cars and trucks.

The draft ATP has good parts and weak parts, Werner says. The weak parts involve equity issues, she says.

Werner says it’s the responsibility of city officials to fix the weak parts.

“Our next step,” Werner says, referring to herself and her Leadership Counsel colleagues,” is to make sure our city leaders do their job.”

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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