Think for a moment about neighborhoods in Fresno. Maybe you thought of the Tower District, or Fig Garden? Or perhaps it was Woodward Park or Sunnyside. What about the area west of Highway 99, between Clinton, Herndon and Grantland Avenues. Today it’s a checkerboard mix of subdivisions, rural homes, and farmland. And getting across Highway 99 to the rest of Fresno, and over the railroad, and Golden State Boulevard is a traffic nightmare. Now, the city is starting a new effort that aims to solve some big problems for area residents.
One such resident is Victoria Cuesy-Jimenez. She drive across Highway 99 three times every morning.
Her commute begins at her home just north of the Island Water Park. She drives across Herndon to drop her son, Michael, off at school. Then she drops off her daughter, Elizabeth, which requires doubling back under the highway.
“And then I go to work,” says Cuesy-Jimenez. “I take Shaw so it's a bit of a commute. I mean, not too bad. It’s all within close proximity, but just the commute alone, the traffic alone can add a lot.”
To get ahead of the traffic, Cuesy-Jimenez leaves her house nearly an hour before her work day starts.
“My commute according to Google is 12 minutes to work,” says Cuesy-Jimenez. And it will sometimes be 30, 35 minutes if there's a train, if there’s traffic.”
Her neighborhood is situated west of Highway 99, between Herndon and Shaw. In that two-mile stretch, there are no other streets that cross the highway or the Union Pacific railroad. Cuesy-Jimenez says both streets get really congested. She’s heard rumors of building streets over or under the tracks, and about the long-promised Veterans Boulevard, but she’s skeptical.
“I wish it came sooner because it would alleviate all this traffic. But the promise, it just seems like it'll never happen because we hear about it every year,” says Cuesy-Jimenez. “I’ve gone to town hall meetings, and hear about it and they always say the same thing. They need funding.”
Councilman Steve Brandau represents the northernmost part of the area. He’s been trying to make Veterans Boulevard a reality for years. He says it would be a critical piece to improving traffic in the West Area, and preparing for projected growth along the city’s edge.
“What veteran's is going do is it’s going to fly over the 99, Golden State and high-speed rail train track,” says Brandau.
Brandau is hoping to get the final $30 million for the project through a grant from the federal government, but it will be awhile before the city finds out if they get it.
City Council President Esmeralda Soria also represents a big region west of highway 99, between Shaw and Shields. She hears a lot of complaints about congestion, but she’s hoping the West Area Specific Plan will identify other resources the area is missing.
“People have to cross over to come to the grocery stores, to come shopping, to go to the doctor, because none of those amenities - I don’t even think they have a dry cleaner west of the 99, says Soria. “And so those are amenities that don’t exist and so people are having to travel across the city.”
Mark Stevenson has been a general contractor for over 25 years in Fresno. He says the council member’s hopes of better amenities and connectivity are exactly what the area needs.
“You can see the area infrastructure east of the 99 is very cohesive and very tight, and you look west of 99 is like an ink blotter waiting to be drawn,” says Stevenson. “So the West Area Plan is ripe for input from citizens to develop into an exciting community.”
Stevenson predicts that neighborhoods in the area will soon include Silicon Valley employees who are living in affordable Fresno homes and using high-speed rail to get to work. Stevenson already has plans to develop affordable housing west of the highway.
The potential improvement sounds exciting, and the investment will be a big deal for the area, but residents are still uncertain of what the outcome will look like. At a recent community meeting, west area residents raised concerns about the projects’ timeline, and their daily traffic struggles.
Brandon White and Semere Paulos came to the meeting together; both say they relate to traffic frustrations. White just moved to the area a few months ago.
“I think what we're dealing with now is the result of poor planning from past city councils,” says White. “I'm talking about going back 30, 40 years, because they have a long range plan going out decades and now we're reaping the negative aspects of not having a proper plan 20, 30, 40 years ago.”
Paulos says it’s hard to see longtime residents so frustrated.
“It’s heartache and you can hear it today a lot with some of the people who have lived here longer than Brandon and I have come to this community. This is our first meeting so it was interesting to kind of see the people. Everyone had the same concern at the end of the day.”
So, will one road or plan make a difference to the area?
Michelle Calvarese is the chair of the Department of Geography and City and Regional Planning at Fresno State. She says that it’s possible.
“I don't think that one particular project is going to make everything rainbows and unicorns in the area,” Calvarese says. “But one road can make a huge difference.”
Calvarese says that city planning is a political process, with a lot of stakeholders: the city, developers, residents. It can be hard to get things done with so many moving pieces, and a lot of red tape to work through.
“While it may seem frustrating, and it is frustrating, if oftentimes results in a better project,” says Calvarese.
Right now, the city says the specific plan may take a year to finalize. They will find out if the Veterans Boulevard project qualifies for federal funding in a few weeks, and it could take a few more months before they find out if they get the money at all.