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Where did all Fresno’s transportation dollars go? Not to the communities that needed it most, reporters find

Where did all Fresno’s transportation dollars go? Not to the communities that needed it most, reporters find

Picture of Danielle Bergstrom
Passengers board a bus at a stop near Manchester Center in Fresno.
Passengers board a bus at a stop near Manchester Center in Fresno.
(Photo by Craig Kohlruss/Fresno Bee)

In the summer of 2021, I led a team along with Maria G. Ortiz-Briones, a reporter with Vida en el Valle, to investigate how a sales tax collected for transportation projects in Fresno County was impacting residents without access to a car, and rural communities farther from essential amenities. 

Fresno County, in the minds of many, is the epicenter of car culture and suburban sprawl. But over 10% of people in Fresno County don’t have a personal car. That number is likely low, as many households often share vehicles. And for those who do have a car, it may not be very reliable for daily transportation needs.

Transportation is critical for all sorts of things: keeping a stable job, safely walking kids to school, getting to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment on time, or finding an even better job.

In 1986, Fresno County voters approved the first version of Measure C, which at the time was ostensibly an initiative to build out the freeway dreams of the local business community. 

I knew that our local transportation agency, the Fresno County Transportation Authority, was working on bringing a new version of Measure C to the voters in 2022. During some reporting last March, I learned trouble was brewing between environmental justice advocates and boosters for the tax measure.

Our investigation started with a simple question: Where had Measure C dollars been invested, and what communities were benefitting? We had a hypothesis: rural and farmworker communities had been left behind. 

The initial reporting plan was to request data on all Measure C expenditures since 1986, map them out, and then find a few communities that had struggled to get investments and do some deeper community engagement to learn more about their transportation needs and concerns.

To our surprise, the dataset we requested didn’t even exist. How could there be no recordkeeping of where hundreds of millions of dollars of local sales tax revenue was spent? Despite the existence of an oversight committee for Measure C, we learned that the Fresno County Transportation Authority was only required to disclose how much money was spent, and within eligible categories, but that money allocated to local cities for their transportation needs was not being accounted for. The staff agreed and (eventually) put together the dataset for us, but it took a few months for that to come together.

In the meantime, there were some broad trends we pieced together: the vast majority of funding had been spent on building new freeways, mostly to connect downtown commuters with suburban communities. Our research of the measure’s history led us to find that thousands of people — mostly working class — were displaced from their homes in the 1990s during the construction of freeways 180 and 168. 

Transit was also an afterthought in the measure, and only used to entice those concerned about air quality to support it. Nothing in the law encouraged funds to be spent in places of high need, or where people were less likely to have reliable transportation. 

We also hosted a series of online conversations with community leaders in Fresno County to discuss our project and learn more about their concerns and ideas. Through those forums, we connected with leaders in West Park and Mendota, both primarily farmworker communities, where residents have been active in advocating for many years for improvements in transit services and safer walking and biking routes. 

Our series led with an explainer of Measure C. The goal of that piece was to help our audience understand the “now” of the ballot measure process, so that they could engage and weigh in with their own preferences in the official process. But we also wanted to make sure our readers had some of the historical context we had uncovered; some answers to basic questions about how the money has been spent; and an explanation of what the key policy debates are, which we learned after interviewing elected officials and others close to the process.

Then my colleague Dympna Ugwu-Oju reported on the failures of public transportation in many rural farmworker communities, where service had been abandoned altogether. Cassandra Garibay, Monica Vaughan, and I reported on how rural communities — like West Park — are left to deal with potholes, unpaved roads, and an incomplete network of sidewalks. Maria and Cassandra reported on how different communities are stepping up to plug the gaps left behind from declining transit service by forming their own electric ride sharing programs. I also reported on the connections between Measure C and suburban sprawl, and how suburban developers appear to be pushing for more of the same in the new process for 2022. I also reported on what it’s like to live in Fresno without a car, and why it’s been so difficult to improve transit service in the city.

We also shared interviews with a transportation equity advocate, a transit researcher at Fresno State, a man who founded a startup rideshare program to serve disadvantaged communities, an air quality advocate, and the head of Fresno County’s rural transit agency in our weekly newsletter, This Week in Fresnoland. Beyond publishing in English in the Fresno Bee’s digital and print publications, and in Spanish in Vida en el Valle, our reporting was also featured on Valley Edition, the weekly podcast from Valley Public Radio.

After our reporting came out, we’ve seen a change in the way issues are represented during Fresno County Transportation Authority meetings. They adopted a set of values that includes more emphasis on meeting transportation needs for vulnerable communities and those who do not own a car.

One of my major lessons from the project was a reminder that transportation funding is very complex. Most transportation projects, from freeways to new transit service to a new sidewalk, have multiple sources of funding. It’s hard to say that a community’s lack of sidewalks is directly related to a local tax measure like Measure C. However, that said, local taxes like Measure C are usually the most flexible source of funding for local policymakers, and can be better connected with local community priorities. 

So, while Measure C dollars aren’t prohibited from being spent in rural farmworker communities by policy, the fact that much of the tax revenue is not being spent there is more a sign of local policymakers’ relationship with those places, or how much they understand the needs. And when we spoke with local policymakers, we heard a lot about how transportation funding should be spent to catalyze economic development and growth — not so much about solving safety or transportation access issues for more vulnerable communities.

That said, any reporter interested in accountability reporting on investments related to health and neighborhoods should start with local tax measures. Researchers can often link spending on neighborhood investments to social mobility and health outcomes. Local tax measures have the greatest amount of local control involved, so there’s a higher chance of impact in local reporting on them. 

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