The city of Fresno, California located smack-dab-in-the-middle of the San Joaquin Valley cannot seem to break the habit of building more roadways for, of all things, polluting automobiles and trucks, predominantly.
Case in point: On Thurs. Dec. 3rd, by a six-to-one (in favor of) vote, the City Council approved awarding a contract to American Paving Co. to rip out the pedestrian promenade the entire length of the six-block-long Fulton Mall in Fresno’s downtown and plop down in its place a two-lane roadway with room for parking, all the while retaining most of the statuary and art adornments that currently add to the pedestrian-centric mall’s ambiance and character, and all for a pretty sizable chunk of change – $22.4 million to be exact. The job of restoring what was once Fulton Street along this stretch and returning it to an asphalt thoroughfare – really, a reinvented version of its former self, it is hoped by those banking on its success that, when complete, the so-called “upgrade” will drive patronage to what, essentially, will be a repurposed venue, this reinvented space otherwise going by the name “Fulton Corridor.” This restoration is a centerpiece of the City of Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s downtown revitalization plan.
Many support the mayor’s plan; but many are opposed as well. Efforts to try the stop forward progress in it tracks have come in the form of litigation. And, while this is in process, an appeal contesting a lower-court ruling that favored putting the roadway back in, is being advanced.
In addition to those, a key sticking point is that the city has only $20 million in hand of the $22.4 million total needed. Not so very long ago, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx presented the mayor a check from the fed for almost $16 million; the remaining $4-plus-million coming courtesy of the state and local governments. The challenge now seems to be of determining what aspects of the restoration work can “stay” and what can be “adjusted” so as to reduce the cost. Who knows: the contractor tasked with doing the work, might not even consider a modification as being an acceptable option. If such is the case, it is entirely possible that the project could go out for re-bid.
This idea of building a road to, as it were, “drive” patronage to the corridor where it has up until this point in time been woefully inadequate as some deem, well, it is what it is. Only time will tell if the putting-back-in-the-roadway approach will actually work. Of all of America’s outdoor pedestrian malls ever built, only about 30 remain.
As if Fresno doesn’t already have enough roadway miles. In fact, in Fresno County in 2013, the county enjoyed some of the shortest commute times as far as metropolitan areas of the state go. In an article in The Fresno Bee written by transportation columnist Tim Sheehan, average one-way commute time for motorists in Fresno County was 22 minutes. This is speedier than what existed in both 2010 and 2000, with average commute times of 22.3 minutes and 22.2 minutes, respectively. Meanwhile, the number of vehicle travel miles (VMT) rose from 19,313,000 in 2001 to 22,972,750 in 2013 on 7,167 miles of roadway. This is an increase of 2.6 percent over the 6,987 roadway miles in 2001. In the same 13-year span the amount of VMT climbed by an eye-popping 19 percent.
A nagging question, though: Does the community need more people driving, people driving more, or more people driving more often thereby putting more strain on the downtown street network? What if parking is not in sufficient supply for the anticipated throngs expected to frequent the new corridor once opened, affected motorists finding themselves in a quandary needlessly driving around trying to locate an available parking space? Depending on the number of motorists finding themselves in this same circumstance, should that play out, a consequence of that deficit situation could be congestion; congestion that could lead to added emissions polluting the air more than what it is already, something Fresno and all Valley communities just don’t need more of.
Looking down the road some in the figurative sense, with arrival of high-speed rail and the accompanying high-speed-train station, basically just a stone’s throw away from the mall on Mariposa and Tulare streets, the thinking is that there will need to be ample parking for that too. The traffic generated from the high-speed-train station alone, could severely limit traffic flow in and around the station complex.
The assumption is that people arriving on high-speed train will need to get to venues elsewhere within walking distance and beyond, and if area streets near the site are plugged, mobility in the downtown core could be extremely negatively impacted and the city could have a real problem on its hands. If that’s the case, it is highly unlikely that local residents in droves will be very enthused about making the drive to the city’s central business district. And, all those would-be business ventures that were counting on the Fulton Corridor being a saving grace, well, there aren’t any guarantees.
And something else: If the road was the key ingredient to businesses being successful, then it would stand to reason that all business ventures situated along roadways would prosper and that is decidedly not the case. There are plenty of examples where storefronts lining streets are empty, that is, sans occupants.
If not a road, what about rail?
As the Phoenix, Arizona-area MetroRail lightrail transit (LRT) system was being constructed (it took three years to build and cost $1.4 billion) and even subsequent to its completion, the initial 20-mile, 28-station line connecting Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix, saw attendant development up and down the right-of-way sprout up, development today that is valued in the billions. Mesa wanted its piece of the rail-inspired development pie and that too has come to fruition. There is no way to know for sure if this has come about as a result of the eastern end of the line being extended the additional 3.1 miles and now reaching the central business district, but it would be difficult to attribute it to anything else. And, for Mesa, it is singing the praises for such development activity picking up, and this, in this mostly conservative southwestern town.
Not only has the MetroRail service been an important tool for development and redevelopment opportunity along the now total 23.1-mile path, but with all of the new businesses going in, in conjunction with what existing businesses there already were beforehand, a goodly proportion of the businesses that dot the line provide the lightrail system a significant number of riders that use the transit vehicles that traverse the tracks. Entities like academic institutions, entertainment, sporting and cultural venues, medical facilities and convention-related activity, to name a few, provide additional ridership support. One can only imagine that if the said development and redevelopment activity occurred absent the lightrail’s presence, what effect on local traffic this would have in terms of concentration, and noise and air pollution.
If Fulton Street through the mall becomes a street once again, will it be money well invested or not so much? If the latter is the case, this will be an instance of what could have been but wasn’t.