A 2007 report on Measure C boasts of freeway expansion. Credit: Fresno County Transportation Authority

What’s at stake?

Measure C is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set the agenda for billions of dollars of transportation spending. A growing divide on priorities between Fresno city and county leaders is threatening a successful measure for the November 2022 ballot.

Frustrated by Measure C compromise talks that have fallen apart, Fresno city officials are seriously exploring two unconventional routes to get a transportation spending plan that aligns with their priorities.

City leaders are looking to pursue state legislation that would change the decision-making structure of the Fresno County Transportation Authority and launch a competing citywide transportation sales tax measure on the November 2022 ballot, according to Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias.

Led by Mayor Jerry Dyer, Councilmembers Tyler Maxwell and Arias, and dozens of community organizations and environmental advocates, critics have assailed the latest version of the Measure C plan, which cuts spending on public transit, trails, bike lanes and sidewalks for the next 30 years.

“I represent some neighborhoods that haven’t had roads paved for over 50 years. Those folks have had that promise of Measure C for 40 years, and have never seen that come to fruition,” Maxwell said. “It’s those folks I’m thinking about when I’m pulling the trigger on a citywide tax.”

Despite this opposition, elected Fresno County officials on the Fresno Council of Governments will make a critical vote Thursday evening on whether to move forward with putting a new version of Measure C — a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set the county’s transportation agenda — on the ballot this November.

But the plan county officials will vote on Thursday has, in the last few weeks, lost support from some of the executive committee members who crafted it. Mark Keppler, an executive committee member for the last year-and-a-half, said he will not support the current measure this year.

“This has very much been a staff-driven process,” said Keppler, executive director of Fresno State’s Maddy Institute. “I think that the way it played out was, frankly, looking more for a rubber stamp than a real critical analysis of what was being proposed.”

Growing divide over priorities, power

Weeks after the Measure C executive committee gave its final approval for the spending plan, the Fresno City Council has taken an increasingly active role in shaping the details of the plan before COG’s scheduled vote.

The mostly closed-door conversations leading up to the vote reveal a widening chasm between Fresno city officials, city of Clovis and county leaders over the region’s transportation spending priorities. The question of who ultimately should have the most power in allocating the estimated $6.84 billion revenue from the 30-year tax extension, multiple sources tell Fresnoland, has emerged as a major point of contention.

The clash is partly over two competing visions for the future of growth, both shaped by public spending on transportation: one focusing more resources on older neighborhoods and providing more transportation choices for those who don’t want to drive everywhere; and the other continuing the region’s long-bought legacy of car-oriented suburbia, where walking anywhere outside of a cul-de-sac is a risk most wouldn’t take, if they had a choice.

“The leaders of (Measure C) think we’re trying to convince rich people to get out of their cars. But the reality is, we’re just trying to give a lifeline to people who don’t even own a f—–g car,” Arias said. “This is about making sure retired farmworkers, people without a car can get to the grocery store, to their doctors’ appointments on time.”

But the clash is also about the Fresno County Transportation Authority — a little-known public agency created in the 1980s to oversee spending over local transportation projects — which controls the purse strings over billions of transportation dollars. Fresno holds only two of the nine voting seats, but has a majority of the county’s population.

“We have 55% of the population in Fresno,” Arias said. “COG’s measure gives us 46% of the money.”

Public transit, bike lanes, walking paths on chopping block

According to Fresno city officials, public transit takes one of the largest hits; the current plan would reduce transit spending by nearly 39%, forcing route cuts and eliminating more frequent buses.

Funding for the taxi scrip and farmworker vanpools have also been eliminated, and city and county transit operators must decide to assume the cost of continuing the programs.

However, Mike Leonardo, executive director of the Fresno Transportation Authority, pushes back against accusations that the spending plan shows a reduction in allocations for public transit. He says that the spending plan actually gives more money to public transit than the current Measure C, after factoring in revenue growth.

“We don’t think we cut public transit,” Leonardo said. “The average amount of money that’s going to transit is going to nearly double in this next measure.”

Fresno city leaders — led by Dyer Arias, and Maxwell — have an alternative plan for Fresno COG leaders to consider: They’re suggesting that the plan reduce spending on freeway and road expansions in Fresno in order to restore transit back to levels established in the 2006 ballot measure.

Maxwell said this would keep funding levels at similar if not higher levels for rural cities to spend on road expansion and maintenance, while keeping transit intact in Fresno.

They’re also pushing for policy changes that would allow cities to spend their local road dollars on improving county roads to city standards, including adding curbs, gutters, sidewalks and landscape maintenance.

Fresno leaders adamantly oppose the current COG plan for transit-oriented development dollars to be spent in places that have not invested in transit.

“Every goddamn regional plan relies on the city to build housing along transit, to have a functioning transit system. But when it comes to money, they (COG and FCTA) just want to build freeways,” said Arias.

A citywide transportation ballot measure for Fresno?

Fresno leaders are now working to prepare their own ballot language for a citywide transportation sales tax, which they hope to also place on the November ballot if Thursday’s Fresno COG meeting doesn’t end in their favor.

Arias says the City Council has until July 21 to get a majority of the council to vote to send it to the ballot; it will require a two-thirds supermajority of voters.

Maxwell said the city’s top priority is to make sure local road repair is funded. But he’s also eyeing an expansion of more transit routes, and an influx of funding to support transit-oriented development.

No other California city has its own special tax for transportation, according to Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. If Fresno leaders decide to create a plan with more funding for transit, bike lanes, and walking paths, it could make them more competitive for state funding, he added.

“Over the past few years, the state has shifted from funding highway capacity expansions to funding public transit and active transportation,” Matute stated in an email.

But the city’s rush to trailblaze a new tax over the last few weeks underlines what critics of the renewal process have been bringing up since early last year, said Veronica Garibay, co-director of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

“What’s happening is everybody is now becoming more upset that there are these closed-door discussions about shaping a $7 billion measure,” Garibay said. “The community has been raising these issues for a year-and-a-half now, only to be ignored every step of the way.”

“Cutting deals behind closed doors doesn’t earn the public’s trust,” she said, “but it speaks volumes about what decision-makers think about the public.”

More ‘equitable’ representation for Fresno

City leaders have also expressed frustration that while Fresno has the majority of county residents, they’re frequently overruled by county and Clovis interests when it comes to transportation spending.

The executive committee of FCTA, the agency that oversees and administers Measure C spending, includes two representatives from Fresno (the mayor and a rotating city councilmember) among nine voting members. Fresno County appoints an urban and rural supervisor; Clovis has a designated seat, and the rest of the seats are at-large for east side cities, west side cities and a rural and urban at-large member.

Arias confirmed that the city is exploring options with the state Legislature that would codify what the city sees as a more ‘”equitable” decision-making structure — one that gives more voting power to population centers, and doesn’t allow the interests of a minority of the population to veto the majority.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a city in California has worked to change their representation on a regional transportation body. In 2017, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that gave the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista more voting power on SANDAG, the transportation agency for San Diego County.

Such a move, if successful, could dramatically alter transportation planning and spending in the county, and possibly usher in a new, more transit and labor-friendly majority into transportation talks.

But some regional leaders stated their disappointment that the ongoing Measure C fight doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.

“I like the politics of everyone winning,” said Scott Miller, president and CEO of the Greater Fresno Chamber of Commerce. “But right now, we’re on the path of everybody losing.”

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Gregory Weaver

Gregory Weaver is a freelance journalist who covers the environment, air quality, and development for Fresnoland.