What's at stake?
County leaders are considering extending a transportation tax that heavily favors freeways and new roads that serve suburban development at the expense of older neighborhoods.
CORRECTION: The original story misidentified the source and amount of Assemi donations to the campaign to defeat Measure P, the Fresno city parks tax. (April 5, 2022)
The future of transportation in Fresno County rests largely with Measure C, a local sales tax that is expected to raise more than $6.8 billion for roads, highways, and public transit over the next 30 years.
It’s vital that the interest groups that decide how that money will be spent — ag, labor, healthcare — reach a consensus. If they don’t, the measure’s ability to garner the necessary two-thirds of the public vote is jeopardized.
That consensus is now at risk. The latest set of proposals cuts public transit funding by 44% to 92% from Measure C’s existing formula, while allocating nearly twice that amount for road expansions that would bring expressways and rapid-flow street arteries to the city’s yet-undeveloped suburban fringes. The plan allocates less than 3% of Measure C funds to electrification projects, despite commitments from the state to add millions of electric cars to roads in the next decade.
A group of community organizations on the renewal committee, known as the Equity Coalition, which is representing central Fresno and rural communities, say that the expenditure plan currently being drafted by transportation planners is outmoded and devotes too much money to suburban growth that pollutes the air, warms the climate and lines the pockets of wealthy developers.
Members of the group say that they will not support the renewal of the ballot measure this year if the spending priorities are not changed to reflect the unmet transit and rehabilitation needs of rural and urban communities.
“There’s been absolutely no robust discussion whatsoever about reimagining Measure C in a way that actually connects people to opportunity and addresses deficiencies that residents have brought up for years,” said Veronica Garibay, co-director of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
“It’s a repeat of facilitating the sprawl development we’ve been seeing for decades. This plan is taking four steps backwards into that area,” said Grecia Elenas, regional policy manager for Leadership Counsel. On the other side, the high-level agency executives overseeing the renewal process say they’re not going to let the discontent of the community groups stop them. The executive directors of the Fresno County Council of Governments and the Fresno County Transportation Authority each said they believe that the spending priorities as currently written are the right ones. They are plowing ahead to put the Measure C renewal on the ballot this November.
“I don’t think having opposition is fatal,” said Mike Leonardo, executive director of the Transportation Authority.
“Those of us in the business have known that these folks are going to oppose it,” said Tony Boren, executive director of Fresno Council of Government.
“There’s just sort of acceptance that this is what they do. I think the thing is: we’re gonna put together a plan that will get two-thirds of the voter support in Fresno County, and let the chips fall where they may.” Lynne Ashbeck, co-chair of the renewal committee, said that Leadership Counsel has not been constructive in creating a solution for the renewal process over the last year. The community groups, she said, were using “arbitrary” faults with the meetings to oppose Measure C.
“Nobody has time to stand on the sort of glass-half-empty view. So it’s really been frustrating and disappointing,” she said.
“Come to the table and help us solve it. Don’t come to the table just simply to tell us why it’s not going to happen.”
Disagreement about the process
For the last year, a group of transportation agency staff, agribusiness, labor reps, mayors and community organizations have been meeting at monthly committees to renew Measure C, Fresno County’s half-cent sales tax.
Since the start of the committee negotiations in April 2021, a coalition of community-based organizations, including Leadership Counsel, Building Healthy Communities, Central California Environmental Justice Network, and Faith in the Valley has been pushing for changes to the community outreach process. They say their calls to the renewal committee to bring together communities from across the county, using a combination of budget advocacy and community meetings, to draft the details of the expenditure plan have gone unheeded.
“A lot of people are thinking about how do we get creative with Measure C to create local jobs and workforce development for local youth,” she said. “There’s a yearning in the community to have these conversations, but we’re not giving them the respect and dignity to be a part of the process.”
Instead, FCTA and COG, the agencies overseeing the renewal process, hired the same downtown ad agency that had been hired in the past for public relations. For $700,000 in taxpayer money, they have held a few meetings attended by 400 people and conducted an online poll with 2,000 responses.
“They’re not interested in thinking about building a community-driven participatory plan that really invests in the needs and opportunities of people in Fresno County … and one that really takes climate change into account,” Garibay said.
After two years of historic wildfires that came within a whisker of engulfing the developments of Shaver Lake, Garibay was surprised that a larger discussion of climate change never took place. “How is it possible that there has not been a single discussion at the committee to talk about climate, especially the connection between climate and transportation?” she asked.
A recent Fresno city hall report showed that half of Fresno’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. A parallel state report from the California Strategic Growth Council showed that Fresno County spends more money on public roads — and less on public transit — than any county in California with a major metropolitan area.
Critiques, prior measures
The community groups wanted the Measure C renewal process to elevate local priorities around road repairs, walkable neighborhoods, and timely public transit in urban and rural areas.
For the last generation of subdivisions in the wealthy northeast Fresno area, the community groups say many neighborhoods in Fresno County have for decades foregone street repairs while high-speed projects that reach the subdivisions at the edge of Fresno continue to attract local funds and political capital.
They point to the existing Regional Transportation Plan, whose wish list for road expansion projects in the Fresno area is larger than for street repair. Leadership Counsel’s Garibay pointed out that this oversight is an unlikely result if a thorough community engagement process was deployed.
She was worried what this underestimation for the need for road repair could mean for urban and rural communities if used as a blueprint for Measure C.
“These communities are totally going to miss out of potential Measure C revenue that they themselves are paying into,” she said.
This is not the first time this community organization bloc has contested which projects get the dollars generated by local sales tax. Five years ago, the group successfully organized Fresno communities to make a new sales tax — Measure P. Its major accomplishment was to secure an unprecedented 80% of its $4 billion funding to renovate and expand central Fresno’s dilapidated parks system, which at the time was rated as the worst in the country. Its emphasis on intercity projects was contested by the city’s power brokers. With then-Police Chief Jerry Dyer as the face of the opposition, real estate developer Ed Kashian, Brandon Smittcamp, Bonadelle Homes and Richard Spencer of Harris Construction put their wallets behind stopping the measure at the ballot.
The most generous donor to the opposition was the Assemi family with 12 Assemi-related entities pouring in $205,000.
Leaders of the community organizations believe that the opposition to Measure P was a matter of economics. They surmised that Fresno power brokers didn’t like that a large fraction of Measure P’s revenues went to rehabilitating central Fresno parks and felt developers preferred a more laissez-faire spending formula that would have siphoned off more public tax dollars to build parks near the city’s newest subdivisions. This would have subsidized the bottom-lines of the real estate products that local developers sell, they said.
With Measure C, the community groups hoped to reimagine the geography of county finance like Measure P.
“We really wanted, because of the conversations in our work with community residents over the years to support Measure P, to follow that model with Measure C,” Garibay said.
When it comes to the needs in low-income communities, Nayamin Martinez, the director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network and Measure C executive committee member, recalled a poignant moment during a discussion in Mendota.
Parents talked about the difficulty their children encountered when they crossed the street to get to school. The street was a four-lane highway, and there was no crosswalk painted in the asphalt.
“The kids try to cross, but at the risk of getting run over by cars. The ones that are a little bit more cautious walk all the way to the light, and then go up back again on the opposite direction to get to school,” Martinez said.
“They were not even asking for a stop sign. Just a crosswalk: lines so that (drivers) know that they’re crossing,” she said.
Five years after Martinez recommended to COG that the crosswalk be painted, children continue to cross the road without the benefit of one. Over the next decade, the traffic on the same road is forecast by Caltrans to only grow.
Martinez said that the Measure C renewal process was a way to ameliorate the bottlenecks in the transit development pipeline that allowed projects like the Mendota crosswalk to languish as an agency wish list item for years.
“You see where the bulk of the investment goes,” she said. “It’s to the Fresno/Clovis area, at the expense of these small communities that do not have as much political power.”
Stubborn patterns, problems
But as these groups carved out multiple seats in the renewal process’s Executive Committee over the last year, they say they have encountered a stubborn problem of established power in the Valley.
A year-long delay due to the pandemic and multiple cautionary letters from the community organizations has not budged FCTA and COG in their belief that the renewal process was an ongoing success.
“The renewal process seems divorced from principles guided by transparency and community engagement,” Leslie Martinez, a community engagement specialist at Leadership Counsel, wrote on behalf of 20 organizations last April to the renewal committee.
A few weeks later, Martinez went further. “It’s important for all of us to question ourselves about the legitimacy of this process, considering there’s not one (non-elected) community member from a rural area” on the committee, she said.
“I think we’re missing an opportunity if we don’t think about how we can make this a more inclusive process for community residents.”
Leadership Counsel has pointed out that the community outreach conducted for the Regional Transportation plan, which COG has said goes “hand in hand” with Measure C, happened at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, long before vaccines were made available.
“They held (the meetings) when cases were rising and our hospitals were full,” Garibay said. In contrast, Tony Boren said that the latest Measure C outreach process was the best in Measure C’s history. “We feel good about the public outreach process,” he said. “I don’t think we skipped a beat. I would argue the same thing with the transportation authorities: I don’t know that they’ve skipped a beat.”
This renewal attempt comes at a rapidly changing time for how transportation dollars are allocated in California. In an interview, Boren said that the state is in the “process of trying to change the transportation paradigm,” by trying to move people out of their cars to alternative modes of transportation. “The state’s not supporting any kind of new capacity projects on the state highway system,” he said.
Despite these changes, the agencies overseeing the renewal process have long believed that the details of the expenditure plan wouldn’t need major changes from the existing measure that was passed in 2006. In an email to Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, Boren quoted a staff report that stated that the Measure C renewal’s overall program may need “some tweaking, but not a full-scale revision.”
Garibay said the latest expenditure plan reflects such beliefs.
“Staff will move forward with a status quo measure that basically replicates what’s been done in the past, and does not at all account for what community residents have been saying,” she said.
Not much time left
As the renewal process completes its final steps for the July ballot approval deadline, committee members say it is unlikely that the renewal process can bridge the gap with the community organizations in time.
“We continue to raise these issues about this rush to the ballot, and not really understanding why, given the context of everything that’s happening around transportation, climate and community engagement, why there had never been a discussion about whether this would go to 2022 or 2024,” Garibay said.
“It’s not really clear who made the decision to just move forward.”
Last March, Mark Keppler, director of Fresno State’s Maddy Institute, said in an email to Leonardo and Boren that to be successful at the ballot, the expenditure plan would need a strong, nearly unanimous consensus within the committee.
“These kinds of measures don’t work if you have any organized opposition,” Keppler told Boren and Leonardo.
Still, Leonardo and Boren have a direct path to the ballot if they choose. They have the ability to ignore committee consensus, shift funding from public transit to highways, and get it on the ballot with a nod from the county Board of Supervisors, according to a memorandum written by Leonardo last month.
Garibay said that going ahead with the present spending plan is a missed opportunity to create generational change in the existing transportation infrastructure.
“Streets and roads in existing neighborhoods are falling apart. People don’t have access to timely transit,” she said.
“There’s no sidewalks, curbs, gutters, streetlights, crosswalks, protected bike lanes. Things that Measure C can and should pay for, but there’s been no discussion at the committee.”
Garibay said that most people in the county care about “jobs, economic opportunity, access to higher education, people being able to afford to be able to stay where they live and have access to basic groceries. Everybody in Fresno says they care about these things.”
She said, however, “It’s so hard to actually move the people in power who say they care about all these things to ensure that they build and support a process that allows everyone to have that conversation.”