Left out and overlooked: How rural Fresno County roads and transit are neglected

By Danielle Bergstrom, Cassandra Garibay and Monica Vaughan

Roads in rural Fresno County are often neglected and underdeveloped. Potholes, flooding and basic safety measures go unfixed. There are no streetlights, sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, center lines or even speed limit signs on many roads in rural towns, and public transit service is limited.

That’s not just a result of a lack of county resources. Rather, it’s a series of county decisions about which areas receive transportation funding and which are left behind.

In 2006, Fresno County voted to continue a half-cent sales tax for transportation funding to build and repair roads, improve public safety, fund public transit and address other transportation needs. The county generated nearly $1 billion in Measure C monies so far. Some places see those benefits, but residents of rural areas outside city limits haven’t gotten their fair share.

When it comes to road maintenance or bike and pedestrian paths, Measure C prioritizes more-populated locations, meaning locations with higher density like county islands and new developments benefit the most. And, half the roads in rural, unincorporated areas of the county are not maintained by the county and simply don’t receive Measure C funds.

“While we can and do use Measure C funds on County-maintained roads throughout the county, we are required to direct the majority of funding to the more populated areas,” said Sonja Dosti, the county public information officer.

That means rural communities are denied their portion of public investment that more-urban areas enjoy. That’s true in some wealthier neighborhoods, as well as severely disadvantaged areas west of Highway 99.

West Park resident Terri Hernandez said she wants a walking path in her neighborhood, but socio-economic status and amenities go hand in hand in Fresno County. Nearly 80% of her community live with incomes below the poverty level.

Hernandez sees it like this: “The poorer side of town never gets the same amount of money as the north side of town. We are always left out, and overlooked. Like we do not matter.”

That is in part because of how the Measure C Implementation Plan was written, and in part because of how federal funding plays a part in major projects. That could change.


About 15% of Measure C funds are dispersed to cities and the county for road maintenance like fixing potholes, and another 15% is dispersed as “flex spending.” Roughly half of the roads in unincorporated areas of the county will never get patched with Measure C funds. About 171,000 people live in unincorporated Fresno County outside of city boundaries.

The Measure C Implementation Plan states that funds should only be used for “publicly owned, operated, and maintained facilities.” Half the roads in rural, unincorporated communities don’t fall within that “maintained road system” — a map or list of roads that are the county’s responsibility to maintain.

“You have as many roads in this county not responsible by my department to maintain as we do maintained road miles,” said Steven White, the director of Fresno County Public Works.

In a neighborhood northwest of Clovis, some roads are maintained by the county, while others like North Blackhawk Lane and North Autumn Ave. are maintained by residents.

The county made a decision to stop adding existing roads to the maintained road system in 1986. White said, at the time, the county couldn’t keep up with maintaining the existing roads.

“We don’t have enough money to maintain what we have,” White said. “It’s not just 3,400 miles of roads, it’s 500-plus bridges.”

The county does allow neighbors to band together and create a county service area for residents and industries to collectively pay for road maintenance (without the benefit of Measure C funds). That is the case for Reno Road, northeast of Fresno. White said, however, “we typically don’t have people asking us to join a CSA so that they can pay to maintain the road in front of their house.”

Maintenance responsibility for roads that are outside the county’s maintained road system depends on the situation, White said. And when those roads aren’t being maintained as they should, it’s unclear what action the county can take to ensure safety.

“If it’s a health and safety issue, we have a responsibility, I’ve been told by the attorneys, but we don’t have a responsibility for maintenance. And that’s kind of a double-edged sword: If your maintenance goes down, then all of a sudden, you could have a public safety issue,” White said. “I’ve asked for clarification back from the attorneys. I haven’t got it back yet.”


Even roads that are in the county’s maintained system are still underdeveloped. Some roads in West Park, for example, are maintained by the county and were re-paved in the past few years. Still, there are no sidewalks, no drainage and no center lines.

“In the 50-plus years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen any real changes here in our little section of the world as far as any improvements,” said John Benavidez, president of a neighborhood advocacy group called Los Olvidados of West Park, which translates to “the forgotten ones.”

When Guadalupe E. Pineda Jr. needs to go to the market or to serve on jury duty, the 70-year-old rides his bicycle. It’s a few miles from West Park into Fresno, riding on the side of a two-lane highway with no shoulder. “I keep my head up. I watch my back,” he said.

White said unincorporated communities often don’t have sidewalks in Fresno County because there is not enough funding to maintain them. The county was able to put sidewalks in some communities, like in Biola, because the local community service district agreed to maintain them.

“Getting the capital dollars is not terribly difficult, it’s the maintenance dollars,” White said. “For every dollar we put into a sidewalk, it takes away a dollar for maintaining a road. And unfortunately we have a lot of roads.”

Lack of federal funding also poses challenges for unincorporated communities that do not qualify for grants.

Measure C funds are often used as a local match to bring federal dollars for projects within the county, but roads with little traffic often don’t make the cut for grant programs, according to County Public Works staff analyst Erin Haagenson.

“It puts us in a difficult situation,” Haagenson said. “We have to look for other sources of funding because Measure C is pretty limited, the amount of money we get.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the federal Surface Transportation Block Grant Program does not fund projects on roads classified as “a local road or a rural minor collector,” with some exceptions.

Haagenson and White said the county tries to find other sources of funding, such as the federal Active Transportation Program through SB1, which is funding a proposed path in West Park, but the grant is competitive.


Transportation funds generated by Measure C are divided into categories of projects. Funds in some of those categories are then distributed to city governments and county governments, or to other public transportation agencies. Urban and suburban areas benefit disproportionately.

Funding for rural areas and public transportation only made it into this current version of Measure C after strong community advocacy to fund more than highways and new roads.

Most Measure C money is allocated to three spending categories. The remaining 10% is for alternative transportation, environmental engagement and administration and planning.


There's railroad relief in sight for Central Fresno as two new railway underpasses could start construction in 2022 and be completed in 2025 following a recent decision by the Fresno County Transportation Authority. BY ERIC ZAMORA


Local Transportation Program (35%): Money for street maintenance, ADA compliance, flexible funding, pedestrian trains and bicycle facilities are distributed to each of the 13 cities in the county, and the county government for unincorporated areas, based on population and mileage. Language in Measure C directs agencies to prioritize spending near urban areas, and half the roads in rural unincorporated areas are ineligible because they are not maintained by the county.

Regional Transportation Projects (30%): Roughly half these funds are allocated for urban areas and half for rural areas to improve freeway interchanges, add lanes, increase safety and improve major commute corridors. Some projects classified as rural did benefit older rural communities, such as new drainage and a bridge near Huron. Others benefit new suburban growth in small, rural communities, like Millerton New Town or Kerman.

Public transit (24%): Fresno Area Express and Clovis Transit combined receive about 16% of all Measure C funds. Those services stop at the city limits, just out of reach for many rural residents. Fresno County Rural Transit Agency receives just 4% of Measure C funds, even though it serves residents in 11 other cities and unincorporated areas in Fresno County.

Clovis Transit receives 2% of Measure C funds to serve a population of about 120,000. FCRTA receives twice that amount to serve roughly 360,000 people, three times the population of Clovis. And rural residents are often more transit-dependent: they are less likely to own a reliable car and are further away from basic services.


Community groups like Los Olvidados of West Park are working to bring investments to their neighborhoods for stop signs and bike paths. So far, those projects haven’t been funded by Measure C dollars, but that could change in the next version of the policy.

“We need more resources to help our community grow and live a healthy quality of life. We will no longer be left behind,” Hernandez said.

In the last few years, with the help of California Rural Legal Assistance, West Park has won a grant to build a safe path to school for children. Currently, school children who walk or bike to school have no sidewalks. When it rains, they walk in the middle of the road.

Kids unload from a West Park School District school bus south west of Fresno on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Rural roads in Fresno County are neglected due to a county decision to not maintain them. That means potholes, flooding and basic safety measures go unfixed. CRAIG KOHLRUSS CKOHLRUSS@FRESNOBEE.COM

The group also successfully advocated for new stop signs at the intersection of South Marks Avenue and West Church Avenue, where cars often speed on their way into Fresno.

“We didn’t lobby,” said Jesus Beltran, vice president of Los Olvidados. “We just griped like hell.”

Neither of those projects will receive funds from Measure C, even though those residents have paid into the transportation fund tax dollars every time they paid sales tax.

Whether or not more Measure C money will be invested in rural, unincorporated and disadvantaged communities in the future is a policy question that has received some attention at Measure C meetings, according to White.

The topic is included in a public survey asking residents what their transportation funding priorities are. The survey asks if it should be a priority to, “Ensure all Fresno County communities, including poor, rural and historically disadvantaged communities, receive resources to address their transportation needs.”

“The policy questions are still up in play right now,” White said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of money redirected, is my gut, into these smaller communities, to create another pool, another pot of money.”

Currently, while rural communities get about half of the regional transportation funding in Measure C — over $128 million since 2007 — most of that money is spent building and expanding new roads, rather than fixing what’s already there.

Fresno County has received Measure C dollars for bike lanes and trails, but most have been spent in urban unincorporated areas, according to data Fresnoland requested from the Fresno County Transportation Authority.

Other Fresno County leaders are not so sure Measure C is the place to address historically disadvantaged communities. “It’s probably best to give money to the locals and let them decide how they want to spend money on their social justice needs,” said Tony Boren, executive director of the Fresno Council of Governments, one of the agencies leading the Measure C process.

This story is part of a series produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 California Fellowship.

[This article was originally published by The Fresno Bee.]

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