Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Help Bring National Attention to Central California Transportation Issues

If you're reading this blog, you know that Central California is not all sunshine when it comes to planning, development, and transportation. You also probably have a strong desire to see improvement.

For example, Fresno's half-cent transportation tax has been devoted almost entirely to highway expansions and roadway widening. Road diet projects have been halted due to right-wing elected officials. Fresno's pedestrian mall is being ripped up, and the BRT project is no longer BRT. Sprawl, of course, continued unabated. This pattern is true across the valley. Sure, there are bright spots and individual wins, but since I started this blog over five years ago I've seen much more bad than good.

One way to combat these problems is being active politically. Calling council members, attending meetings, and getting involved.

Unfortunately, sometimes these efforts are fruitless. When a developer holding bags of campaign donations is on one side of the issue, and hundreds of concerned locals are on the other, the bags of money tend to win out. That's how you get statements like this, which fly in the face of reality:

“This doesn’t perpetuate the legacy of sprawl,” he said. “Gunner Ranch is contiguous; it’s a logical expansion for urban development.”

So what's the solution, if you care about smart planning, good transportation, and sustainable development?

Media attention.

A group of 100 advocates can easily be ignored when the electorate is made up of 100,000 people who are unfamiliar with the issues of transportation and development. But when headlines are generated, the elected official no longer has to worry about the 100 advocates, but how the headline reads to the general public.

That's why I am encouraging you to visit Streetsblog California and consider supporting their work.

My blog has a nice core of engaged readers who are interested in planning, development and transportation in the Fresno area. However, I'll be the first to admit that the subject matter of my blog is incredibly niche. And that's before even accounting for Fresno's dwindling blog scene, which includes mainstream subjects such as music events and food.

That's where Streetsblog California comes in. They take important issues brought up by dozens of blogs such as this one and shine a national light on them. The fact is, politicians - especially those with larger aspirations - care about how the media portrays them. Taking a local story that is noticed by 100 Fresno activists and elevating it to a national level does have an impact.Thanks to Streetsblog, posts about Fresno have made the rounds from a small planning circle all the way to the BBC.

Check out their post which summarizes some of the great stories they've done in the past two years, and consider providing them some support.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A quick look at the reconstruction of the Tuolumne bridge for HSR

One of the most obvious signs of High Speed's Rail's (HSR) coming arrival to downtown Fresno has been the demolition - and now reconstruction - of the Tuolumne street bridge. The bridge was two lanes wide and carried traffic eastbound over the Union Pacific right of way. It was paired with the Stanislaus Street bridge which carries two lanes westbound.  

Both bridges will be demolished and replaced by a single bridge carrying traffic in both directions. The bridge will feature wider sidewalks as well. The reason is that aside from being 50 years old (or more?), the current structure of the bridge does not allow enough room for the new High Speed Rail tracks to fit. Once the new bridge is in place, and the Stanislaus Street bridge has been demolished, more serious work can be done downtown to create the new tracks and station.

Meanwhile, other construction is underway just north of downtown, as they have begun to build a trench. However, I was unable to get any good pictures. The construction area is surrounded by private property or the highway. 

Let's take a look at the work on the bridge. I will begin with pictures I took back in January to see what it looked like a few days before closing forever. Below them are the pictures I took two weeks ago showing the current progress.

Here is the bridge back in January, taken from the sister bridge.

Frankly I don't understand  why so much space has been wasted for 100 years.

 The bridge itself

 Not the best of sidewalk conditions.

I'm sure the structure itself was on its way out.

 Coming back you see the official sidewalk path - not ADA

The old pedestrian path also didn't inspire much confidence in safety.  

 Frankly, I wouldn't have felt comfortable parking here.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

7th daily San Joaquin train launches on June 20 - a look at the new schedule!

Amtrak's new 7th daily San Joaquin train will launch on June 20!

A few months ago, I reported that final touches were being put on a new 7th daily train between Bakersfield and the Bay Area. Although they missed the predicted launch date of June 6, you can now purchase tickets reflecting the new schedule that kicks off on the 20th.

That's how I was able to see what the new times look like, because the full version has not been posted on Amtrak's page, Let's take a look!

We start by looking at northbound trips from Bakersfield to Oakland. The blue trains in the image go to Sacramento. That means that in Stockton you transfer to an Amtrak bus if you want to reach Oakland or San Francisco. The red "train" in this image is actually a bus. It is intended for folks coming from Southern California, and terminates in Fresno. It requires purchase of a connecting rail ticket, due to lobbying by Greyhound.

The big changes were in the morning. The first train of the day starts 20 minutes earlier. Rather than a single  7:15am train, there are now trains at 6am (to Sacramento) and 8am (to Oakland). The 10:05am train was pushed back 20 minutes. The afternoon trains saw no change, with the last train leaving 5 minutes later. The new 8am train is attractive if you want to avoid the bus connection to Oakland (although the bus connection is faster!)

This is a little unexpected. While the morning schedule makes a lot of sense, it is baffling that they want to keep the last train from Bakersfield before 6:30pm.

It seems that the priority was to lessen the gaps between trains, rather than to expand the scope of service.

Previously, there was an average wait of 2 hours and 46 minutes between trains - now it will be 2:35. The largest gap used to be 3:20, and now it is 3:00. The smallest gap used to be 2:20, and now it is 1:35.

Why such early departures? While 4:25am may seem a tad too early, it takes 2 hours to get to Fresno, so a first departure at 6:18am from Fresno makes sense for those heading north. Additionally, total trip times are over 6 hours, so the new schedule gets you into Oakland at 10:26am - a perfectly adequate time. One of the challenges for planning this kind of schedule is that you're also taking into account folks coming from LA or even San Diego as well. Previously, the "late" bus left LA at 1:35am, now it will leave at 1:15am. That's actually a littler better for those using public transit to attend an entertainment event in LA, one which most likely ends around midnight.

Personally, I would have seen a greater benefit to a uniform 3 hour gap between trains, extending the service day. For example, I would see a lot of value in a schedule like this:

4am - 7am - 10am - 1pm - 4pm - 7pm - 10pm

However, I have to trust that the folks planning this have some decent ridership data, including ticket sales and surveys, to back up their choices.

Additionally, it is important to note that Amtrak California does not control the tracks. They used tracks owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific. That means they get to decide when they want to let Amtrak run through. When the new train was announced, it was to depart at 4am. It is possible that the freight companies pushed it to 4:25. It is also possible that other concerns, such as labor or noise ordinances affect times trains are allowed.

One of the advantages of the new High Speed Rail system is that the tracks will be 100% owned by the state.

The southbound changes are odder still.

(Recall that the red train in the northbound schedule terminates in Fresno. There is an early morning southbound bus from Fresno to LA (6:00am) which will not change.)

The first and last trains of the day did not change, keeping the span of service exactly the same as it is now. This means the last southbound train leaves at 5:55pm, which frankly is pretty damn early. (Note that again blue signifies a Sacramento train, meaning from Oakland you are put on a bus to Stockton).

The second and 3rd trains saw only minor adjustments, which could have easily been due to other factors.

It is the middle of the day that sees more service. Rather than a single train at 1:15pm, there are now departures at 12:35pm and 2:30pm.

Here are how the gaps between trains changed from Oakland

The 2:30pm train is really weird, because an Amtrak bus departs just 25 minutes later. Even stranger is that the bus requires a 35 minute transfer at Stockton. Padding is expected because while the buses will wait for the train, the train will not wait for the bus which might get stuck in traffic. However, unless you just missed the train, I can't see a scenario where taking that bus would make any sense.

However, when looking at train arrival times in Bakersfield, the gaps make more sense. This is due to differences in trip times and the bus transfers.

Again, I can only hope they have ticket data that backs this up, because in my mind, an even 3 hour wait seems like it would be best for the average traveler.

5am - 8am - 11am - 2pm - 5pm - 8pm -11pm

It is important to note that planning has already begun on an 8th train, one that would operate from Bakersfield to Sacramento, and presumably with bus connections from Stockton to the Bay Area. It is unclear if that new service can run in the near term, or if Amtrak has to wait for their new trains to start arriving in 2018. 

Additionally, there has been talk for over a decade in adding a second track in Fresno, so trains could spend the night. That would allow the Amtrak bus that terminates in Fresno to be replaced by a train, providing a later northbound option from Bakersfield and an earlier southbound option from Fresno.

Let's hope that happens soon.

Finally, here's the same data presented in a different form, with trip times included. 



I will follow up in a few months to see if ridership ticks up with the new service.