Ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties cre­ate new ways to get around

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY RYAN LILLIS AND ROBERT RO­DRIGUEZ rro­driguez@fres­nobee.com

The gro­cery store is 15 miles away. Ju­lia Men­doza will drive you there for $2.50. There may be a par­ent meet­ing at the el­e­men­tary school one night. That ride will cost you $1. The doc­tor is in Han­ford and the im­mi­gra­tion of­fice is in Fresno. To get to those places and back home, Men­doza charges $10.

In this tiny town sur­rounded by the some of the world’s most boun­ti­ful farm­land, many of the men work the fields and a small group of women seem to run ev­ery­thing else. They take the kids to school. They buy the gro­ceries. They make sure health in­sur­ance is avail­able. They travel to Sacra­mento to lobby law­mak­ers for safe drink­ing wa­ter.

But all of that is dif­fi­cult. The tule fog makes for treach­er­ous travel in the win­ter, and small white crosses and bou­quets of flow­ers mark the

where peo­ple have been killed in traf­fic ac­ci­dents on the roads out­side town. Cantua Creek is also a poor com­mu­nity iso­lated by un­re­li­able mass tran­sit sys­tems and roads barely wide enough to fit two pass­ing trac­tors.

So the women got cre­ative. With the help of Cen­tral Val­ley so­cial jus­tice and en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates, they won a grant last year from the 11th Hour Project, which funds eco-friendly pro­grams around the world. The money was used to pur­chase a seven-pas­sen­ger elec­tric Tesla van that served as the town’s mass tran­sit sys­tem. A sec­ond grant this year al­lowed the town to buy an elec­tric Chevro­let Bolt, which re­placed the van.

Men­doza has the keys to the Bolt and, as a re­sult, has be­come the town’s de facto mayor. She drives her friends and neigh­bors on im­por­tant er­rands dur­ing the week, but on week­ends her Bolt is avail­able as a ride share for $28 a day. It can be found hooked up to a power cord run­ning out of an aban­doned fire sta­tion.

“Peo­ple tell me they wouldn’t do this even if they were crazy,” Men­doza said through a trans­la­tor, drink­ing bot­tled wa­ter and sit­ting in her front yard on a warm Oc­to­ber morn­ing. “Then I’ll keep be­ing crazy.”

More than 50 years af­ter Ce­sar Chavez and Dolores Huerta united farm­work­ers in a fight for their civil and la­bor rights, the small towns of the San Joaquin Val­ley are or­ga­niz­ing be­hind a new cause: ac­cess to trans­porta­tion. Cantua Creek res­i­dents have be­come far more or­ga­nized since their tran­sit sys­tem be­gan. They re­cently spent sev­eral days at the state Capi­tol meet­ing with law­mak­ers and tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore a Se­nate com­mit­tee for a bill that would have taxed Californian’s drink­ing wa­ter to pay for clean­ing up toxic wells, in­clud­ing those that serve their town.

“When you en­gage in de­ci­sion-mak­ing that im­pacts your com­mu­nity or qual­ity of life, I think it pro­vides mo­men­tum to want to do more for your com­mu­nity,” said Veron­ica Garibay, a co-founder and co-direc­tor of the Lead­er­ship Coun­sel for Jus­tice and Ac­count­abil­ity, a so­cial jus­tice or­ga­ni­za­tion that ap­plied for the elec­tric ve­hi­cle grant in Cantua Creek. “There was al­ready a lot of unity, but now there’s a vested in­ter­est in im­prov­ing con­di­tions and mak­ing sure your com­mu­nity is be­ing treated in a just and fair way and re­ceiv­ing the ben­e­fits and in­vest­ments that other com­mu­ni­ties are re­ceiv­ing.”

The move­ment is spread­ing. The Lead­er­ship Coun­sel is work­ing with a mother and daugh­ter who want to run their own shut­tle ser­vice in Delhi, an un­in­cor­po­rated com­mu­nity mid­way be­tween Modesto and Merced. Res­i­dents of Planada, east of Merced, are work­ing on a pro­gram as well.

And in Huron, a small city an hour south­west of Fresno sur­rounded by fields of al­monds, cot­ton and let­tuce, re­li­able and af­ford­able trans­porta­tion has been an ev­ery­day prob­lem for decades. Those with­out cars have used an in­for­mal rideshar­ing sys­tem op­er­ated by lo­cals known as raiteros. With the help of a state grant worth $519,000, the mayor launched a non­profit ride share ser­vice pow­ered by a small fleet of elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

Mayor Rey Leon said it’s about pro­vid­ing eq­uity and eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

“What we are do­ing in Huron is not just a ser­vice for Huron, it’s a vi­sion for other com­mu­ni­ties as well,” Leon said. “There are huge gaps of ser­vice, and we want to work along­side our pub­lic trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture to make it ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive.”

CANTUA CREEK

Cantua Creek is a fairly typ­i­cal ru­ral Val­ley town. The fields that sur­round this vil­lage of less than 500 res­i­dents pro­duce cot­ton, pis­ta­chios, gar­lic, al­monds, let­tuce and more than a dozen other com­modi­ties found at farm­ers’ mar­kets and gro­cery stores through­out the world. Nearly ev­ery res­i­dent is Latino, ac­cord­ing to the cen­sus. The me­dian house­hold in­come is roughly half the state av­er­age.

“We feed the world,” Men­doza said.

Yet in many ways, the town has been left be­hind. The drink­ing wa­ter doesn’t meet state stan­dards for safety and qual­ity, ac­cord­ing to the state’s wa­ter re­sources con­trol board. The air in the south­ern San Joaquin Val­ley is of­ten harm­ful, ex­as­per­ated by the re­gion’s to­pog­ra­phy as a basin be­tween moun­tains. Trans­porta­tion sys­tems are un­re­li­able or out­dated, res­i­dents say, leav­ing towns in the area cut off from the state’s pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, health care and nu­tri­tion.

There is a school in Cantua Creek, but nowhere to buy a loaf of bread. It takes about an hour to drive north­east to Fresno or south­east to Han­ford.

“Com­mu­ni­ties like Cantua and Delhi and other low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties have color, they’ve had to be re­silient to sur­vive,” Garibay said.

Men­doza has lived in Cantua Creek for 26 years. While gangs have in­vaded some of the larger towns in the area, Cantua Creek has re­mained peace­ful. Res­i­dents gather in the park­ing lot of the old fire­house in De­cem­ber to cel­e­brate all they have seen and done that year.

“We take care of one an­other,” she said. “What more wealth do we want here?”

A few years ago, Men­doza be­gan driv­ing friends and neigh­bors on er­rands, mostly for ap­point­ments with doc­tors. It was an un­de­pend­able sys­tem, some­times leav­ing peo­ple stranded for hours. But Men­doza did it be­cause the re­gion’s bus sys­tem was even less re­li­able and would re­quire long trips for rou­tine er­rands.

“Peo­ple needed rides,” she said. “They would ask, so I would do it.”

Af­ter the fam­ily’s wa­ter rates went up four years ago, Ju­lia’s hus­band, An­to­nio, called Garibay’s of­fice to ask if there was any­thing they could do. That con­ver­sa­tion led to com­mu­nity meet­ings, where res­i­dents also ex­pressed con­cerns about a lack of re­li­able trans­porta­tion.

Backed by a phone dis­patch sys­tem, Men­doza takes young moth­ers to the el­e­men­tary school for GED cour­ses and classes on how they can be­come more in­volved in their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion. Friends of­ten seek rides to Saint Agnes Med­i­cal Cen­ter and the Mex­i­can Con­sulate in Fresno. When she isn’t shut­tling neigh­bors around, Men­doza de­liv­ers hot meals to the el­derly for the Sal­va­tion Army.

Men­doza is paid in cash for her ser­vice. She said some of her neigh­bors have a dif­fi­cult time with the con­cept of rid­ing in an elec­tric car, con­vinced that it will run out of power and leave them stranded. But that doesn’t hap­pen. With­out her, “the hus­bands would have to stop work­ing to drive peo­ple,” said her friend, Blanca Gomez.

“I do not drive, so for me, it means a lot,” said Gomez, who has hitched rides to a doc­tor in Men­dota and a Medi-Cal of­fice in Coalinga. “It is a big ser­vice.”

About 85 miles north is Delhi, a large town by Val­ley stan­dards with a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of nearly 11,000. Stephens Street, the main com­mer­cial cor­ri­dor, has two liquor stores, a Dol­lar Gen­eral, a Mex­i­can bakscenes ery and a used car lot. There’s a health clinic, but no ma­jor med­i­cal ser­vices or banks. Those are in Tur­lock, a 20-minute bus ride away.

Hayde Berenice Sanchez-Lozano, like Men­doza in Cantua Creek, has op­er­ated an in­for­mal car­pool in the town for a few years. She once drove a friend to the hos­pi­tal to de­liver a baby and shut­tles lo­cal Baile Folk­lorico dancers around the re­gion. She would like to es­tab­lish a shut­tle ser­vice for stu­dents tak­ing night cour­ses at UC Merced or Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity, Stanis­laus, in Tur­lock.

Sanchez-Lozano has a Ford C-Max elec­tric hy­brid – which has seat­ing for five peo­ple – but wants some­thing larger.

“I love trav­el­ing,” she said, “but I wish I could bring more peo­ple. To do some­thing like this, you have to have pas­sion.”

HURON

Down a dirt road – and just be­yond a mu­ral wel­com­ing peo­ple to Huron – is a startup or­ga­ni­za­tion that’s try­ing to bridge the gap be­tween res­i­dents of this farm­ing town and the rest of the San Joaquin Val­ley. The city is home to about 7,000 peo­ple, about half of whom live be­low the poverty level. On blus­tery days, blow­ing dust swirls through town.

The re­gion is served by bus ser­vice, but it takes sev­eral hours to get to and from ma­jor des­ti­na­tions. That has forced many res­i­dents to rely on the raiteros.

Mayor Leon, who was raised in Huron and is a staunch ad­vo­cate for his com­mu­nity, is tak­ing the con­cept of raiteros and el­e­vat­ing it with a pro­gram he helped cre­ate called Green Raiteros, a ride-share sys­tem of elec­tronic ve­hi­cles.

“We are grow­ing an in­dige­nous idea and turn­ing it into a pro­gram,” Leon said. “This isn’t about drop­ping a pro­gram into a com­mu­nity. We are grow­ing it from within.”

The pro­gram is be­ing op­er­ated as part of Leon’s Val­ley Latino En­vi­ron­men­tal Ad­vance­ment and Pol­icy Project, or LEAP. The idea is to pro­vide the res­i­dents of Huron with ac­cess to zero-emis­sion ve­hi­cles that can shut­tle them to doc­tor’s ap­point­ments, job in­ter­views, or gro­cery stores.

The pro­gram got its boost with a $519,000 grant from the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion. The project is also get­ting help from mul­ti­ple part­ners, in­clud­ing EVgo, Ben­e­fi­cial State Bank, Mo­bil­ity De­vel­op­ment, Shared Use Mo­bil­ity Cen­ter, Sch­midt Fam­ily Foun­da­tion 11th Hour Project, BMW Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices, Non­Prof­its United In­sur­ance, and Der Manouel In­sur­ance.

With the fund­ing from the state, the pro­gram was able to se­cure two elec­tric ve­hi­cles, a BMW i3 and a Chevro­let Bolt. The fund­ing also paid for an of­fice, dis­patch cen­ter and garage for the ve­hi­cles.

Reyes Bar­boza Jr., direc­tor of op­er­a­tions for Green Raiteros and a na­tive of Huron, is in the process of train­ing vol­un­teer driv­ers and over­see­ing the com­ple­tion of the pro­gram’s of­fices, a for­mer auto re­pair shop with me­tal sid­ing.

Bar­baoza, a Stan­ford Univer­sity grad­u­ate with ex­per­tise in pub­lic trans­porta­tion and plan­ning, was ea­ger for the chance to run the pro­gram. He has con­sulted with pub­lic trans­porta­tion agen­cies through­out the coun­try.

“I have kept in touch with Rey and have al­ways kept an eye on the Val­ley and was look­ing for a way to cir­cle back to make a con­tri­bu­tion,” Bar­boza said. “And it hap­pened with this project.”

The Green Raiteros build­ing al­ready has six charg­ing sta­tions that will be used by the pro­gram’s fleet. Out­side, four more charg­ing sta­tions will be in­stalled for pub­lic use.

As one of the ser­vice’s driv­ers, Bar­boza has made sev­eral trips to Han­ford, Fresno and Bak­ers­field. Most of the trips have been for doc­tor’s ap­point­ments. For now, the pro­gram is ask­ing for do­na­tions for its rides. It’s work­ing on a pay­ment sys­tem that could in­clude vouch­ers or some form of al­ter­na­tive pay­ment.

“Part of what makes this project fas­ci­nat­ing is that we are part of help­ing to pro­vide this type of tech­nol­ogy,” Bar­boza said. “We have elec­tric ve­hi­cles so why not make this type of tech­nol­ogy avail­able to ev­ery­body?”

JOHN WALKER jwalker@fres­nobee.com

Reyes Bar­boza Jr., direc­tor of op­er­a­tions for Green Raiteros, charges an elec­tric BMW on Mon­day. Green Raiteros, a just-launched elec­tric ve­hi­cle ride share pro­gram, has two elec­tric ve­hi­cles to give peo­ple rides to nearby San Joaquin Val­ley cities.

JOHN WALKER jwalker@fres­nobee.com

Reyes Bar­boza Jr., direc­tor of op­er­a­tions for Green Raiteros, an elec­tric ve­hi­cle ride share pro­gram, shows charg­ing sta­tions in the park­ing lot of a for­mer auto garage where Green Raiteros is lo­cated in Huron. Bar­boza has made sev­eral trips to Han­ford, Fresno and Bak­ers­field. Most of the trips have been for doc­tor’s ap­point­ments.

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