Will four disparate transportation projects hurt or help Fresno air?

In case you are not aware, the city of Fresno in California’s interior Central Valley, a metropolis whose residents number a half-million and who breathe some of the poorest quality air in the United States, has four major transportation projects going on simultaneously. These are:

  • The Q: A 15.7-mile bus rapid transit install
  • Midtown Trail: A 7.1-mile bike/pedestrian trail install
  • Fulton Corridor: A 0.5-mile street makeover
  • Highway 99: A 2-mile highway relocation project to shift to the west by 100 feet, six lanes (3 northbound and 3 southbound) between Ashlan and Clinton avenues (part of the California high-speed rail project to make sufficient room for HSR corridor right-of-way between those two locations)

All have the potential to improve mobility and/or air quality by lowering the amount of emissions coming from transportation – at least in the Fresno area.

BRT basic

Preparations are being made to bring bus rapid transit to city streets. The bulk of project funding was received from the federal government. “Enhanced” BRT stops are now under construction which should allow for quicker boarding and alighting by riders. These are being located on average each half-mile, a change from stops an average a quarter-mile apart. Fewer stops and, presumably, faster pickups and alightings for bus patrons, should, theoretically, make for quicker run times compared to what is realized at present, again, on this 15.7-mile route.

The L-shaped corridor will take buses over railroad crossings; one at Blackstone and McKinley, the other on Ventura Street near downtown. This does have the potential to affect schedules, especially, if long and long-and-slow trains are encountered. Whereas the Blackstone Street crossing has but one railroad track intersecting the roadway, the Ventura crossing has two.

Moreover, with stops located at an average spacing of one every half mile, this could possibly affect ridership. The idea here is to attract new riders and to keep existing ones if the service is to result in lower emissions released, provided, of course, that the new riders are car commuters and the cars they are currently using are not ones producing zero emissions.

So, it remains to be seen just what impact the upgraded bus service will have on regional air once up and running which is expected to be in fall of this year.

Trail trials

Fresno is not want for trails. There is no shortage of such in this mid-state metropolis. Some are in place where trains used to roll. Others are situated adjacent to canals or the longer water-coarse known as the San Joaquin River.

Now, this newest of city-based trails – the Midtown Trail – is going to set local taxpayers back an estimated $9.5 million for a trail said to be 7.1 miles long.

Okay, to enable air-pollution-emissions reduction in an urban community that’s 112 square miles in area, requires people hoof or bike it where they would otherwise take the auto. It’s definitely an “iffy” proposition. The trails would need to connect places people normally drive between in order to be effective in this way. And, for the Midtown Trail it will be no different. It is to begin (or end) at the Manchester Mall, essentially at Blackstone Street and Shields Avenue, run east where it is to connect with another trail along Clovis Avenue; in this case a former branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad whose reach once extended to Pinedale, a Fresno County island within city limits thus providing access to several rail-served businesses located there.

Until the results are in (when construction is finished), the jury, meanwhile, is still very much out on this.

Fulton folly?

The thinking behind replacing a pedestrian promenade with a street intended for shared use by pedestrians and motorists alike, as a means to cut air-pollutant emissions is indeed difficult to figure out.

The conversion of 6 blocks of what had been The Fulton Mall (an outdoor mall) between Inyo and Tuolumne streets is costing taxpayers $20 million. Uncle Sam contributed more than 75 percent of the funds with the remainder provided courtesy of state and local monies. It may well take something more than just the return of the street on these half-dozen blocks to achieve air-quality-improvement success using that approach.

Though, it’s entirely possible it could work. One way is for people frequenting to arrive sans the automobile – the polluting automobile, that is. And, that means on foot, bike or in low- or non-polluting transit. But this would only be possible if the people who are expected to frequent the venue would have otherwise relied on the internal-combustion-engine-propelled power vehicle to get there. It is the hope of many with a special interest in this project to see this area thrive economically – the corridor has fallen on economic hard times, the downturn beginning subsequent to Fulton Mall location-specific businesses pulling up stakes and moving north (in some cases, such moves taking place not long after the mall first opened in 1964).

So, can putting a road back in (as was the case before the pedestrian promenade and mall first came to life) do the trick to get the place back on good economic footing? Yes or no, will the site, regardless, see cleaner air? Time will tell. That part, at least, is a given.

High(-speed) hopes

Comes the high-speed train.

Though it’s not here yet, the high-speed railroad is on its way. There is quite a lot of construction activity going on prior to the train’s actual arrival.

Part of that work involves relocating 3 northbound and 3 southbound lanes of State Route 99 for 2 miles between Clinton and Ashlan avenues in Fresno 100 feet to the west to allow room for high-speed train tracks between those two thoroughfares. HSR trackage in this section will be bordered on the east by Union Pacific Railroad’s main Fresno freight yard and by the relocated SR-99 lanes (these currently in the process of being shifted) to the west.

What is presented here is probably garnering puzzled looks, the confusion no doubt having to do with how relocating highway lanes 100 feet farther west is going to achieve an improved air quality outcome?

It’s certainly understandable if there is. Please understand though that the potential for doing such is there if people who would otherwise be using the highway, switched to the railway. We’re not talking everyone making the switch, but enough to make a difference. And, it isn’t just highway users who could be high-speed rail candidates. It could as well be users of airways. And, it isn’t that the train riders will be riding trains, they’ll be riding rail-propped conveyances powered exclusively by clean energy. All of it according to the rail master plan.

Should the high-speed train service prompt local passenger-rail transit in communities where the train will stop and where such transit is currently absent, then the potential for even greater emissions savings exists too.

All of this infrastructure building has potential. It may turn out that some, when done, will prove completely ineffective at removing vehicle-exhaust emissions from air both in Fresno and its immediate environs.

At the end of the day, these four projects described could be viewed by Fresnans as “The Great Experiment” to learn what works transportation-related and what doesn’t in the air-cleanup sense.

Once findings are in, then the results can have implications for other regions of the state and nation.

In that sense, there is a lot riding (biking and walking too) on these four disparate greater Fresno-area-pavement enhancement and/or transportation advancement projects.

Notes

In “Fulton folly?” Fulton Corridor sits between Inyo Street on the south and Tuolumne Street on the north and not Kern Street as originally written. The article was updated on Feb. 9, 2017 and incorporates the change.

Lower image above: California High-Speed Rail Authority

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