Will Fresno County taxpayers continue to pay for the region’s suburban sprawl habit, as they watch their roads fall apart?

It’s a question many are asking, as concerns over air quality, wildfires, heat waves, and neglected older neighborhoods grow.

For over 35 years, over a billion dollars collected through Measure C — Fresno County’s transportation half-percent sales tax — has focused on building out the county’s freeway and major roads system, making rapid suburban growth possible in north Fresno and Clovis.

That investment has helped to solidify the region’s car-centric culture, making the far-reaches of northeast Clovis a short 20-minute drive from downtown Fresno.

It’s made the migration of major hospitals, grocery stores, and many other jobs to the suburbs possible.

Fresno elected leaders, environmental activists, and community leaders have expressed frustration that county transportation officials continue to march towards the ballot box next November with what they say is an outdated spending plan that continues to favor suburban interests.

“As it stands, I plan to oppose the renewal of Measure C, as it would only continue to fund urban sprawl, which is financially unsustainable and puts the city’s public safety apparatus at risk,” said Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias.

“The current iteration is really copying what we did in 2006. But I think the community has changed. We weren’t the same in 2002 as we were in 1986, and today we’re different again,” said Mark Keppler, director of the Maddy Institute at Fresno State, and a member of the Measure C executive committee.

“Transportation planning has historically been, ‘let’s build roads and freeways.’ We don’t do enough to create real opportunity for people to get to where they need to go to get to a job or do the doctor or to the grocery store,” explained Veronica Garibay, co-director with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

Garibay is part of a new generation of community leaders asking: what if we built our entire transportation system around the needs of people and neighborhoods that have existed in Fresno County for multiple generations, less likely to own a reliable car?

Freeways, sprawl and air pollution

Although county transportation leaders say that the freeways didn’t create sprawl, Susan Handy, the director of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation at UC Davis, says there’s absolutely a relationship, even if it isn’t always direct.

“Suburban sprawl isn’t going to happen unless there’s at least anticipation of highway building in the future,” Handy said. “A developer can build their big subdivision at the fringe of the metro area and be pretty confident that, at some point in time, there’ll be some highway widening to help serve that development.”

But with the convenience of a car comes a cost. Cars and trucks contribute nearly half of the region’s greenhouse gas emissions, about 15% of the region’s PM 2.5 emissions, and about half of the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions — all of which create our smog.

A recent air quality alert from Valley Air District reminded residents that one of the best ways to tamper down on local smog conditions is to hold off on gas-powered car travel.

One in six children in the Valley suffer from asthma. Rates of asthma and related diseases are worse for people who live near freeways and truck routes, often in south Fresno near industrial zones.

In California, policymakers have attempted to use a variety of laws to get more people out of their cars. The best way to do that, say the experts? Make driving more difficult.

Senate Bill 375, a state law that passed in 2008, requires that regional plans — which dictate where future freeways, roads, transit, and housing go — reduce greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels.

A 2018 report by the California Air Resources Board found that the law isn’t helping to reduce emissions.

The Fresno Council of Governments is in the process of updating the county’s regional transportation plan, considered by some as the blueprint for how to spend Measure C tax dollars.

The law has had some local impact: fewer freeway and road expansions are included in the plan than originally planned, said Kristine Cai, deputy director at the Fresno Council of Governments. But wide roads still dominate.

Even in the agency’s “ideal” scenario, a future with even more buses and bike lanes and people living near their jobs, their model — which assumes people will make a rational choice about the fastest way to get somewhere — concludes that most people will continue to drive for most of their trips, explained Cai.

Are Fresno’s freeway-building days over?

Tony Boren, executive director of the Fresno Council of Governments, said the next version of Measure C is not likely to include any new freeway expansions, with the exception of an $84 million plan to rebuild the Shaw interchange at Freeway 99.

One promise in the 2006 Measure C — extending State Route 180 all the way to Interstate 5, a project dubbed the “Westside Expressway” — hasn’t yet arrived.

In 2013, the California Transportation Commission approved a route along Shields Avenue for the Westside Expressway, which currently ends in Mendota. Michael Navarro, a deputy director for Caltrans, said the highway expansion never got past the concept phase and that more environmental review is needed to move the project forward.

Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes — who also chairs the Fresno County Transportation Authority — says the next version of Measure C should focus on finishing the Westside Expressway and then continue expanding the 180 eastward up into the foothills.

While county transportation officials say they aren’t yet committed to a specific plan or set of projects, others are skeptical and claim decisions are being made behind closed doors.

“All these conversations between special interest groups are happening,” said Arias. “Every indication that we’ve seen from the individuals at the negotiating table is that they are continuing to push for an old funding formula to continue indefinitely.”

Even as city leaders protest new freeway expansions, hundreds of millions of dollars of street widenings are planned across Fresno and Clovis — mostly in areas where new growth is planned.

These “arterials” and “collectors” and “expressways” are the main arteries for Fresno and Clovis drivers, enabling them to zip around the metro at 50 mph. Haphazard growth approved by both city and county planners on the fringes of the metro — like Clinton or Ashlan Avenues west of Highway 99 — have created bottlenecked streets.

Arias says that widening these streets are necessary to address traffic concerns of residents on the west side, for example. Handy, on the other hand, says that even with widening local streets comes more traffic and more pollution.

It’s called the induced travel effect: as you expand the capacity of a road, in the short term, it becomes faster to drive that route. But as more people discover the ease of using that route, more traffic is created.

“People may pick more distant destinations than they would have before,” Handy explained, “because it’s easier to get to that store across town they like better than the nearby store. So you’re really not solving the congestion problem.”

Beyond the impact to local air quality, there’s still a question of who pays for these new roads.

New development being annexed into Fresno is required to pay a “fair and proportional share of needed community improvements,” including streets, parks, fire stations, and police protection.

The city acknowledges that property taxes and developer impact fees aren’t enough to pay for the cost of new development, as discussed in a 2020 report to the General Plan Implementation Review Committee.

Measure C also included a fee for developers to pay for their impacts on regional freeways and highways, called the regional transportation mitigation fee (RTMF). It’s supposed to pay for 30% of the cost of new freeway and major street projects. About $40 million has been collected so far — about 7% of what’s been spent using Measure C dollars.

Mike Leonardo, executive director of the Fresno County Transportation Authority, says that’s because the fee can only pay for future impacts, not current deficiencies. Projects are loaned money from other Measure C revenues until the collection of fees can catch up.

Environmental justice groups aren’t just weary of new roads because of the impacts on air quality and suburban sprawl. With new or wider roads comes more asphalt to maintain. Rural roads in disadvantaged areas already aren’t getting their fair share.

A consultant presentation to the Measure C executive committee in June on road maintenance costs projected that roughly $1.6 billion is needed to fix the region’s roads. This didn’t include money to fix planned new roads.

“What is wrong with the system as a whole, and the way we pay for it, if we don’t have the money to fix what we’ve built?” asked Kevin Hamilton, with the Central California Asthma Collaborative.

Fresno leaders want ‘equitable’ share of tax dollars

Under the guise of fighting sprawl, Fresno city officials are also eyeing a greater share of the pie this time around. Fresno residents make up about 55% of the county’s population.

Without a guarantee of more money, city leaders will walk away.

“I will continue to be a strong supporter of Measure C, as long as the city of Fresno receives the appropriate level of funding to meet the needs of our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Jerry Dyer in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, past allocations have not been sufficient to meet those needs.”

Fresno City Councilmember Tyler Maxwell said, “I won’t be supporting Measure C unless Fresno receives its fair share of funds.”

The first version of Measure C guaranteed 70% of the money for freeway and road expansions went to urban Fresno and Clovis.

The second version had a more complicated funding formula. Regional freeway and highway projects are split 50/50 between urban (Fresno/Clovis) and rural areas. Funding for local streets, trails, and ADA compliance is based on a combination of population and road miles. Transit funding is based on ridership. The rest of the money is competitive, decided on by a series of committees full of technical experts.

Since 2006, Fresno has directly received about $295 million in Measure C funding, according to data Fresnoland received from the Fresno County Transportation Authority. That’s about a third of the total revenues so far.

“The regional program is one area where you might be able to make an argument that the metro area isn’t getting their fair share,” said Leonardo. “There’s no perfect way to do this, but under the current measure, I think Fresno does pretty well.”

But what do voters want? A recent poll of Fresno city voters by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center found that nearly half of voters support investing in streets and roads in low-income communities as their top priority. About 23% of voters said they wanted transportation projects that don’t worsen air quality or contribute to climate change. Just 6% wanted to see highway expansions.

The Measure C executive committee has led their own polling, which found, similarly, that voters across the county would like to see a greater focus on fixing what we have.

Community leaders say process lacks transparency, inclusion

Much of the skepticism about the goals of the next Measure C is rooted in a process that many say lacks transparency.

“This process has been a violation of the public trust,” explained Kevin Hall, a climate advocate who helped defeat the 2002 version of Measure C at the ballot box, after business and elected leaders put another freeway-heavy measure in front of voters without much public input. Hall says a similar dynamic is playing out today.

County transportation officials disagree. “It’s a bit premature to make that statement,” said Boren. “We haven’t even put forward a draft plan yet.”

More than 21 community leaders across Fresno County have signed onto a Sept. 8 letter urging the Measure C executive committee to expand the number of seats and hire a neutral facilitator, similar to the successful 2006 renewal effort.

They’d also like to see leaders be more transparent about how community feedback will be taken seriously. It’s the third letter that community leaders have sent to the co-chairs of the committee this year.

“If ag gets a seat, then farm workers should get a seat, too. If industry gets a seat, workers and labor need one as well,” said Huron Mayor Rey Leon about a more diverse representation.

Lynne Ashbeck, co-chair of the Measure C executive committee, says changes are coming. A proposal to hire a neutral facilitator and add several new seats — including additional representation for labor, education, southwest Fresno, the Sikh community, the southeast Asian community, faith, and environmental justice — will be proposed to the committee at the committee’s Nov. 10 meeting.

But will the changes be enough to curb suspicion that the process is going to rubber-stamp another 20 years of suburban sprawl, leaving established communities and unpaved roads in the dust?

“We still don’t know how the community is going to meaningfully shape what gets put before the voters,” Garibay said.

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